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Tell Me More – Part One (Emotional Life)

Are you a caregiver seeking music therapy for your loved one with dementia? As with other health care professions, the assessment is the first stage of music therapy, and for people with dementia, the assessment usually includes information gathered from the client’s family and caregivers. This information, combined with what we learn from the time we spend with a client, helps to guide what we do in music therapy sessions.

Many assessments ask basic questions about clients’ likes and dislikes, hobbies, and affiliations with religious and civic organizations. All of this is helpful information, but sometimes I would like to know more about a client’s emotional life. Here are some questions to consider:

1. What names or pictures of people is this person likely to recognize and associate with positive memories?

I often try to refer to the pictures of loved ones in clients’ rooms during sessions, but the client may not be able to tell me who the people in the photos are. (Another tip: label those photos with name and relationship.) Also, when someone is upset, it is helpful to be able to refer to a person that brings positive associations (e.g. “It’s okay – Suzie arranged for you to have dinner here with us.”)

2. What people or topics might arouse anxiety or distress?

Is there a family relationship that is particularly strained? Did your loved one have a child or a spouse die young? Did your loved one have any traumatic experiences earlier in life? These are topics that I might need to avoid so that I don’t cause unnecessary stress on your loved one. Likewise, if a person is distressed, knowing these anxiety-provoking topics can help us work backwards to figure out what might be causing the distress.

3. What was this person most proud of?

Maybe she worked three jobs to put her kids through college. Or maybe he grew pine trees on his property to sell for Christmas trees each year. Or maybe she was known county-wide for her rhubarb pie. Knowing special details about the things that bring pride help to build the therapeutic relationship and spark more positive memories.

4. What was this person responsible for?

Picking up the grandkids from school? Keeping the family car in good repair? Making sure all the bills were paid? Depending on the day, these might be responsibilities that are also a source of pride, or they might be the worries that can be a source of distress.

Any bit of information about your loved one’s emotional life can be helpful for me as a music therapist as well as other health care workers. If you don’t know the answers to these questions right off the top of your head, that’s okay. Some of these might take a little thought or consultation with other important people in your loved one’s life, but being aware of these topics will help all of your loved one’s caregivers understand a little better how to help.

Of course, as a music therapist, I am also interested in your loved one’s musical life. In my next post, I’ll share some questions to think about on that topic. Stay tuned!

3 comments… add one
  • Emily O.

    All very good points. I love when my clients have labeled family photos or a photo album; it can really ease us in to life review or give extra hints to history you don’t have a lot of access to if the patient is in a nursing home. One of the nursing homes where I see hospice patients made wall hangings with the person’s name, name of spouse & children, veteran status/branch if they served, hobbies and employment key words/place. It was a great conversation starter and also helped if the patients had word salad with their dementia – sometimes the wall hanging gave me the clues I needed to decipher some of the confused speech.

    • soundscapemusictherapy

      Wow, I love the wall hanging idea! What a special gift to give to each resident – not only something pretty to look at, but special information to help their caregivers help them feel at home. I wish every facility would do something like that. Thanks for stopping by!

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