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Hollywood movie makers know the power music has in setting the mood and expressing the right emotion to captivate the viewer, often without the viewer being consciously aware of the music itself.

That influence on emotion and the way the brain processes music are key elements of music therapy programs now offered to participants at Birch Bay Retirement Village’s Don and Beth Straus Center in Southwest Harbor by the center’s new director Carla Tanguay.

The Straus Center offers day programs for seniors who have dementia or other cognitive impairment.  Tanguay is a board certified music therapist who brings more than a decade of experience working with senior patients. She uses active music making experiences to facilitate self-expression, increase verbal and non-verbal communication, and promote movement and body awareness, oftentimes with dramatic results.

One of Tanguay’s objectives is to expand the therapeutic options so the center is more than just a place to socialize and provide respite for caregivers. “I want to take away the stigma that family members are dropping off a loved one to be babysat,” Tanguay said. “This is better for them then staying home. This is stimulating, therapeutic and active.”

Since joining the Straus Center in August, Tanguay has been working with members to address their individual needs.  In relatively short order, one member with dementia who became agitated in the afternoons has found music a soothing addition to his daily routine. “We use a music therapy technique called the iso-rhythmic principle,” Tanguay said. “The iso-rhythmic principle initially matches a faster, more agitated rhythm, such as his rate of respiration or a repetitive motions. Slowly over time we’ll change the elements of the music to a slower more relaxed tempo with more soothing chords. Our member will transition from that agitated state and calm down with the music. He often falls asleep. When he wakes up he’s still calm and he’ll actually sit in the chair until 2 o’clock where before he would pace the room the entire afternoon.”

For other members, music can be a way to communicate. Tanguay said she has worked with those who have suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak, but were able to sing. “The way that music is processed in the brain is different than speech. Music can bypass the damaged language centers and structure your speech in a more successful way,” she said.

In addition to music therapy, Tanguay and the staff use art, movement and other expressive activities to offer a more active experience for members. The center also recently purchased a vehicle to offer transportation to and from the day facility. Two, three, and five-day-a-week programs are offered and assistance with insurance qualifications is available. To learn more, visit birchbayvillage.us and click on the Straus Center link.

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