Is it music therapy or not?

I have been talking a lot about “music therapy” especially in regards to my role as a full-time, live-in care giver for my mom. I used music every day as part of the care she received at home. I experienced first hand the power music has for people with Alzheimer’s disease and advanced dementia. I’ve read a lot about the topic, including research published not only in the field of music therapy but also research related to activity programs and geriatric care in general, particularly research related to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

But after getting some guidance and advice from those working in the field of music therapy, and after consulting with staff at the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), I have decided that I need to make some clear distinctions.

Let’s start with the “official” definition of music therapy provided by the AMTA: “Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” Understandably, they put heavy emphasis on the concept that true music therapy can only be provided by “a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” I also understand and respect the fact that “music therapy” as a profession is protected, and that the AMTA and other leading organizations in the field have gone through great lengths to develop a credentialing process and standardizing the terminology to distinguish board-certified music therapists (BC-MT).

At the same time, however, I respectfully disagree that music therapy can only be delivered by someone with a degree in music therapy and only by those who are board-certified music therapists. I am finishing my Master’s in Public Health and in January 2015 I start on my second master’s degree in organizational management and behavior, so I am well educated. I am also a trained musician and play several instruments and I can sing! I took care of my mother and was her live in, full time caregiver, and I used music as part of her daily therapy. I was able to use music to help my mom communicate when she was no longer able to speak but could still sing. I also used music to improve her behavior when she was sundowning, to calm her so she would be more agreeable and cooperative during bath time, for example, and I used music to help her out of periods when she had hallucinations due to her advanced dementia. The music therapy (and yes it was indeed therapy) that I did with my mom was so effective I was able to get her off of the antipsychotic medication she was prescribed. These are all examples of the therapeutic use of music!

My mom passed away December 7, 2014, but I made a promise that I will continue to help others. I have already stated that I plan to continue the “Sing Along with Margaret” project she and I started earlier this year. I am also volunteering my time at local care centers and I am getting involved with the Music & Memory program.

But I want to make it perfectly clear from this point forward: I do not have a degree in music therapy and I am not a board certified music therapist. Nonetheless, I still believe in my mind and heart that what I do is indeed “music therapy.” Just for legal protection and to make sure I never unintentionally misrepresent myself and the work I do, I will never refer to myself as a music therapist, board certified or not.

I have, however, decided to use the title “Music and Activity Specialist” to distinguish me from someone who just performs music as a social activity in care settings. This title reflects that I have training, education, and experience in developing, providing, and evaluating music and other activity programs designed to benefit people with dementia.

So with that said, from this moment on I am going to avoid using the words THERAPY, THERAPEUTIC, or CLINICAL in describing myself and my work as a Music and Activity Specialist.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.

About Doug Seubert

My name is Doug Seubert and I live in Wisconsin (USA). I am working toward a Masters in public health, and I am the President and CEO of a new non-profit organization: Marshfield Area Purple Angels. My blogs share resources, tools, and information about various public health topics, with a strong emphasis on community health education, effective health communication, and health literacy. I am also the creator of "The End of Life Survival Guide" featuring tips and resources for caregivers of a loved one near the end of life.
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