This is the third article in a series about hiring a music therapist in long-term care. For an introduction to the series and links to other posts, please click here.
Most of the clients we see in long-term care are in music therapy groups. By our definition, these groups are smaller – usually no more than 12 people – and they are built around a variety of experiences that are meant to engage the group members in music, with group and individual goals guiding the group process. Some music therapy groups in long-term care may be designed with a focus on physical rehabilitation/exercise or deeper psychological processing, but for the majority of my groups, the focus is on residents sharing their lives with one another through music. That means our primary group goals are often social interaction, creative emotional expression, and life review.
Advantages of music therapy groups
Perhaps the most obvious advantage, music therapy groups can involve more residents at a lesser expense. Although some people truly need one-on-one intervention, many people can be successful – and perhaps even more fully engaged – in a music therapy group. This may be true even if they are not successful in other group activities.
Emphasis on social interaction
Music really is something that we experience in community, so music therapy groups are perfect for encouraging interaction and relationship-building among residents and staff. This is probably different than with performers who come to entertain the residents with a musical performance, since listening to a performance is often a more passive experience.
Group process encourages life review
Even as the communal experience of music-making leads to social interaction in general, the music experiences and verbal discussions can be structured to encourage life review. As residents share their memories, others’ memories can also be triggered, which can draw residents into sharing who might not do so in a 1:1 setting.
Variety of experiences
The music therapy groups that we facilitate integrate many different kinds of music and a variety of music experiences, such as singing, movement to music, and playing instruments. This variety means that we can meet the needs, strengths, and interests of many different people in the same session.
In contrast to music groups focused on a particular activity (e.g. sing-alongs) or a particular outcome (e.g. handbell choir), our primary focus in music therapy groups is to respond to residents in the moment, with both verbal and musical interactions. If that changes the course of the experiences we had planned, that is perfectly fine.
Adaptation as the group evolves
In addition to flexibility in the moment of music-making, we are also flexible to adapt the flow of music-making experiences as the group changes over time. As residents enter and exit the music therapy group, we may shift to more singing, or more drumming, or more movement experiences. We may bring a focus to the music of different cultures or genres or time periods to suit the members of a group at a particular time. This process of adaptation is completely centered on the needs of the residents rather than any idea of what should be accomplished during a particular group session.
What group music therapy is not
Primarily focused on entertainment
While music therapy is often entertaining (and probably should be in this setting), the goal is not merely to keep the residents busy and happy.
Again, there are exceptions, but most of the groups we facilitate do not focus on deep issues or require a lot of hard work on the part of the resident. Sometimes we even discourage labeling a group “music therapy” on a calendar or when inviting residents to attend, because the label of “therapy” just might be too intimidating for what these groups involve.
In music therapy groups, we are not preparing for a performance, not expecting clients to reach a particular standard. While I do believe that the aesthetic value of the music made by clients is an indication of the health of the group process (that is, we want to help clients move from random banging on drums to a steadier rhythmic pulse), we are not trying to get residents ready to perform on a stage. (Performance-based groups do have a role in long-term care – that will be addressed in the next post in this series.)
Music therapy groups are also not focused on one musical activity (e.g. sing-along, chair dancing, rhythm band). Since these groups are resident-centered, integrating a variety of experiences in each session allows me as the music therapist to adapt the experiences in the session to meet the residents’ needs on a given day.
Of course, other music therapists will have their own way of structuring group music therapy to meet the needs of the residents and agencies they serve, but these ideas do apply to all of the group music therapy sessions we provide. How do the music therapy groups in your facility or practice compare?
In the meantime, stay tuned for the next post in this series on specialized music-making groups!