As Japan faces growing demands for geriatric care, some hospitals and municipalities are turning to music therapy to help people living with dementia.
Experts believe music can in some instances give relief from pain and help people recover lost memories. In the United States, music therapy became a profession back before World War I, when it was seen as a way to help injured soldiers.
The Japanese Music Therapy Association says the technique is aimed at reversing physical and mental dysfunction as well as improving quality of life.
Aomori Jikeikai Hospital in Aomori Prefecture is among the medical institutions that have introduced music therapy.
One day last December, music therapist Yumiko Sato, 38, was playing an adaptation for harp of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony for a female patient lying in bed in the hospital’s palliative care unit.
The 85-year-old patient was pleased. “My father used to play this piece on the violin,” said the woman, as the strumming filled the room.
“I can see a smile on your face when you talk about your father. Were you a daddy’s girl?” Sato responded.
Sato received her professional education in the United States, where she took an accreditation as a music therapist. She worked at a hospice for 10 years.
Music therapists talk to patients to analyze their symptoms before choosing what kind of music to play.
When patients seem short on physical strength the therapist may play music that relaxes them to help them sleep.
And for those in pain, music can simply be an effective way to take their mind off it, experts say.
Another patient, an 84-year-old man who used to be an elementary school teacher, talked nostalgically about his younger days and his hometown. His music therapy included an Irish folk song.
“I used to practice really hard to play the organ so as to become a teacher,” he said.
Junichi Koeda, a doctor in charge of music therapy, said music can sometimes help ease patients’ pain when medication does not work. There are cases in which patients listen to music as recreation, but using it as therapy is something else entirely, he said.
In Japan, there are some 2,700 music therapists accredited by the Japanese Music Therapy Association. Several other organizations also issue certifications.
Yoyogi Hospital in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward was one of the first hospitals to introduce a chorus program at its psychiatric day care unit. The hospital says some patients improved so much after singing that they were even able to return to work.
Municipalities, too, are using musical intervention to tackle dementia, a growing concern in Japan’s rapidly aging society.
Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward introduced music therapy in October 2014 in a program aimed at preventing dementia.
“Even people who are not able to communicate with others can remember lyrics when they hear music,” said the program’s instructor Takiko Takahashi, a professor at Shukutoku University.
He said he believes music therapy has an effect akin to the stimulation produced when someone remembers events of long ago.
But some experts say music therapy has yet to be fully recognized as a therapeutic method.
“It will take more time to have (music therapy) recognized as a means of cure, although there are a lot of people who are benefiting from it,” said Masayuki Sato, a doctor in charge of music therapy at Mie University Hospital.
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