The Beat Goes On

Wisconsin officials needed someone to help care for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Music therapist Ingrid Gruett was ready to help.

Gruett, who is enrolled in Alverno’s Master of Music Therapy program, is the owner of Middleton Music Therapy Services and has built a successful music therapy practice near Madison, Wis. She specializes in working with older adults, including those experiencing dementia as well as hospice patients.

Her excellent work caught the attention of the Area Agency on Aging for Dane County. The agency had received grant funding designed to “break isolation” for older adults during this time of quarantine and social distancing. Could Gruett serve as a telehealth provider of music therapy?

The answer was a resounding yes. Gruett had already transitioned to providing music therapy sessions via telehealth at the start of the pandemic, so she was equipped to provide this service for new referrals.

“It’s a vulnerable population that’s going to be isolated for longer than most of us,” she says of older adults.

Clients’ music therapy sessions are tailored to their specific needs and abilities. Gruett is quick to note that music therapy benefits all of us, regardless of our musical talent.

“We focus on singing together, if the client is interested. Sometimes we’ll play handheld instruments,” she explains. “If the client happens to have a background in music and played an instrument, I incorporate that.”

Scientific research has documented the many ways that music benefits our mental and physical health. It can reduce anxiety, strengthen our immune systems and provide relief from acute pain. For people with dementia, music can soothe irritability and unlock memories.

“Different songs may be important or have important memories attached to them. This gives us a jumping off point to discuss memories and people. That can help us connect with family members who are present during the therapy session,” she says. “People will say, ‘you brought my mom back to me,’ which is really, really special.”

One client with dementia, for instance, has played the piano since childhood. During in-person music therapy sessions, the client would play the right-hand part of piano songs while Gruett would play the left-hand part (the bass section). The transition to telehealth has allowed this client to stay on track with her goal of playing the piano more often.

“It has gone extremely well,” Gruett says. “If I demonstrate how one of her piano pieces begins, she can find that first pitch and play parts of the piece without me even being there in person. It’s been awesome that we can make that connection via telehealth and she can receive those benefits.”

Gruett’s telehealth sessions have also helped Alverno’s undergraduate music therapy students. When the pandemic struck, students were no longer able to continue the field placements that allowed them to gain hands-on experience. So after Gruett secured the appropriate client permissions, she recorded certain telehealth sessions for undergraduate students to watch and discuss.

“I have a passion for helping students and giving back to this field,” she says. “We need more music therapists. I want students to have rich and deep experiences and bring them into this field, ready to go.”

Although social distancing and isolation pose real threats to our mental health, it has been inspiring to witness the new and creative ways in which people have maintained social connections. Gruett is proud to play a part, as well as to contribute to the growth of the music therapy profession.

“This situation has helped a lot of music therapists around the country to consider the ways that we can reach out to people, even during this time of isolation. How does this change our work after this time of isolation is done? How can we help people who don’t live near a music therapist?” she says. “It’s really rewarding to be able to contribute in this way.”

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