The Power of Healing Through Music and Art in the Valley

Buckeye Hospice and Palliative Care uses music therapy to help patients with dementia by playing their favorite songs through Pandora. Photo by Frances Clause/The Jambar

By Frances Clause

Music and art give people a creative outlet, whether it’s to hone their skills or for casual enjoyment. But both also have the ability to heal people – including those in the Youngstown community.

In music and art therapies, patients are guided through creative processes to help them with certain disorders and health conditions ranging from depression to heart disease.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, music therapy interventions can be designed to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance memory, improve communication and provide unique opportunities for interaction.

For B

uckeye Hospice and Palliative Care in Mineral Ridge, Ohio, the search for music therapy volunteers to share their gift with patients and their families is important.

Music as Medicine

Nicole Pondillo, a social worker for Buckeye Hospice, visits patients and incorporates music into each session.

“I like to talk to patients if they like music, if there’s a specific genre of music they like or a specific musician,” she said. “Then when I am able to do my visits, I can play that music for them through Pandora.”

For patients with dementia who are nonverbal, Pondillo said it’s important to consult a family member when deciding on music that won’t cause a negative reaction.

Buckeye Hospice and Palliative Care uses music therapy to help patients with dementia by playing their favorite songs through Pandora. Photo by Frances Clause/The Jambar

“From [the patient’s] background, we don’t know if they had a close emotional connection to that song in a negative experience, so we have to be careful with that,” she said.

But for one nonverbal patient with dementia at Buckeye Hospice, lyrics come naturally. When Pondillo plays the patient’s favorite hymns, she recalls some of the words and is able to sing along.

“Being able to be a part of those experiences has been pretty awesome with Buckeye Hospice,” Pondillo said.

Music therapy benefits many Alzheimer’s patients across the country. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music may reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues that are common in the middle stages of the disease.

In addition, someone with Alzheimer’s may be able to recall a song from childhood, further providing them with a way to connect to others, even after verbal communication has become difficult.

Pondillo said the reason for this is because music memory is stored in people’s long-term memories.

 “With dementia, those long-term memories are typically the last memories to be affected, which is why music can still reach somebody in the late stages of dementia,” she said.

Pondillo believes music therapy is important to Youngstown because of the city’s large population of older adults.

“Just being able to reach them in different ways than the therapies we see now and adding a different layer to it through music therapy can help them cope in ways that we didn’t think were possible,” she said.

Elliot Kwolek, a graduate student in clarinet performance at Youngstown State University, said he enjoys reaching patients by volunteering to play his instrument at nursing homes and watching positive reactions.

“[The patients] just seem so happy that there’s someone there visiting them,” he said. “I think that’s the best part: just making someone feel happy, even if it’s only for 15 minutes.”

Kwolek encourages other musicians to volunteer their time because he believes music therapy benefits everyone.

“I think it’s also a good way to just practice music in front of an audience,” he said. “Music is a big part of so many people’s lives.”

Art Alleviates  

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals and their communities.

The Youngstown community is enriched with the HELMS Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, a nonprofit organization created to honor the life and vision of the late artist Ryan Giambattista.

The organization’s mission is a collaborative effort between various groups and individuals, utilizing art as a tool to assist people struggling with their mental health and developmental and physical disabilities, according to the HELMS Facebook page.

Josh Ford of Youngstown incorporates mental health topics into his art and has participated in the HELMS Foundation art shows.Photo courtesy of Josh Ford

Terri DiGennaro, HELMS chairwoman and Giambattista’s mother, said her son was a street artist and HELMS was his signature, or “tag.” DiGennaro feels the interest in art and mental health, recovery and treating addiction has only grown since the organization’s inception.

“What we did is bring in therapists from Akron and had a meeting with the providers of the [Mahoning County] Mental Health and Recovery Board,” she said. “We explained what art therapy and what the therapists’ credentials were.”

DiGennaro said this meeting was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved because art therapy is not widely known in the area.

“I found a couple of art therapists, and Alta [Behavioral] Healthcare hired the very first full-time art therapist,” she said. “And then we have another full-time therapist at Meridian HealthCare.”

But to reach these goals, art shows were held with the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called NAMI, and these art shows only grew when The Soap Gallery in Youngstown offered to host a fundraiser.

“People sent in so much art, and they were individuals who had struggled or had family members with struggles,” DiGennaro said. “Some artists put their names on [their art] and others did not  because of the stigmas.”

Josh Ford of Youngstown is an artist who participated in the HELMS Foundation art show at The Soap Gallery, and he received second place for his work that depicts a person turning to violence to deal with pain.

“I feel like if you want to make change, you got to open up topics,” he said. “My job as an artist is to provoke feelings, to provoke people to talk.”

Ford’s advice to other artists is to not follow in everyone else’s footsteps.

“By dancing to your own song, you will change the world through strong images,” he said. “People see that one image or one painting that might provoke them, see how they truly feel and they might have a breakthrough.”

To learn more about art therapy services in Youngstown, contact the HELMS Foundation at [email protected] or 330-727-5850. For volunteer opportunities in music therapy, contact Buckeye Hospice at 330-531-7543 or visit