Tara Jenkins: Rhythm of Hope: Exploring Music Therapy’s Role in Parkinson’s and Dementia Care

An interview with Tara Jenkins: Rhythm of Hope: Exploring Music Therapy’s Role in Parkinson’s and Dementia Care on February 10, 2024 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.



Tara Jenkins, MT-BC, CDP, CMDCP, is a board-certified music therapist, certified dementia practitioner, and certified Montessori dementia care professional with experience working in dementia care since 2007. 


As the founder of Harmony in Dementia, Tara has become a beacon of expertise in her field, offering both group and individual music therapy services. Her company also extends its reach through music consultation support and engaging workshops and education developed for older adults, caregivers, professionals, and students.


Tara’s unwavering commitment is rooted in extensive training and profound knowledge in caring for individuals living with dementia and cognitive decline. She collaborates closely with caregivers, sharing the transformative power of music and co-creating meaningful experiences for people living with dementia.


In addition to her hands-on contributions, Tara is a co-author of the book, “Music, Memory, and Meaning: How to Effectively Use Music to Connect with Aging Loved Ones.” A sought-after speaker, she frequently presents on pivotal topics encompassing music, dementia, and self-care, further solidifying her impact and influence in the field.


Please tell me a little about your background.


Throughout my career, I have had many roles and responsibilities, which make me uniquely qualified for the work I do today. I have demonstrated leadership and organizational skills as an Activity and Volunteer Coordinator in assisted living and memory care and pioneered a multi-sensory music therapy program for a long-term care community that was tailored for various groups, individuals, and those in end-of-life care. In 2014 I established a successful private practice catering to older adults and caregivers in the Washington D.C. metro area.


I relocated to Austin in 2016 which allowed me to further hone my expertise as a Senior Staff Music Therapist at a local music therapy company.  Presently, I have relocated once more to Wilmington, NC, and plan to continue my commitment to serving the dementia community through in-person and virtual services.


Each step of my professional journey has not only deepened my understanding of music and dementia care but also reinforced my dedication to fostering meaningful connections and shared experiences through music therapy. I strive to be a compassionate and effective advocate for the transformative power of music in healthcare settings.


Can you tell me more about your organization?


Creating harmony for individuals living with dementia and their caregivers truly requires a collaborative effort, just like in music. At Harmony in Dementia, I believe in the power of music to enhance the lives of those affected by dementia in various ways.


Through group and individual music therapy sessions, I use music as a tool to stimulate memories, promote emotional expression, and improve cognitive function. For people living with dementia, music therapy can provide a sense of connection, reduce anxiety, and increase overall well-being. Caregivers also benefit from participating in sessions, as they learn effective techniques for using music to communicate with their loved ones and manage challenging moments.


In addition to music therapy services, I offer music consultant work to help organizations and individuals incorporate music into their care practices effectively. My workshops, education, webinars, and training programs provide valuable resources and support for caregivers, professionals, students, and older adults interested in learning more about the benefits of music in dementia care.


Whether delivered in person or virtually, my services are designed to empower individuals and communities to create meaningful experiences through music, fostering a sense of harmony and connection in the journey of dementia care.


What is your passion and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure?


My passion lies in nurturing meaningful connections and curating enriching musical experiences for both caregivers and people living with dementia. At Harmony in Dementia, I am dedicated to offering support for caregivers and equipping them with the tools and resources they need to provide the best care possible for their loved ones.


Through my tailored music activities and programs, I aim to not only enhance the quality of life for those living with dementia but also alleviate the challenges faced by their caregivers. My mission is to raise awareness about the benefits of music in dementia care and to make these experiences accessible to all who seek them.


Ultimately, my goal is to foster a community where everyone involved in care feels empowered and supported, and where the power of music can be fully realized.


Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with people living with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers. I recently read that about 80% of people living with Parkinson’s disease will eventually develop dementia. Because of this, I strive to provide resources and support to anyone who is experiencing cognitive decline.


What type of goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when working with you?


Music therapy can offer significant benefits for people living with Parkinson’s disease. During my work as a music therapist, I have helped address both the physical and emotional needs of clients. Here are some of the goal areas I have focused on.


  1. Improve motor function
  2. Increase vocal strength and control
  3. Boost mood and well-being
  4. Enhance social interaction
  5. Provide cognitive stimulation
  6. Improve quality of life


Each one of these goals can be tailored to a client’s specific needs and abilities. The effectiveness of these music therapy experiences can be assessed and adapted over time to optimize treatment outcomes.


What type of training and how long are the programs?


Music therapists have four years of coursework followed by a 6-month internship, which is a combined total of about 1200 hours of clinical training. Our degrees require knowledge of psychology, medicine, and music. Once our education and training are completed, we take the national board exam to obtain the credential MT-BC (Music Therapist Board Certified).


Music therapists use different aspects of music to achieve individualized goals both in and outside of sessions. One of the things I love about music therapy is how personalized we can design a session depending on who is sitting in front of us.


We do this by assessing the strengths and needs of each client and then providing treatment including creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music. Since our work is individualized the length of our services varies, depending on our goals and objectives as well as client outcomes and participation.


What effect can it have on an individual with Parkinson’s?


The effects of music therapy on people living with Parkinson’s disease vary, depending on the course of treatment. Some outcomes can include:


  1. Improved gait and balance
  2. Improved dexterity and coordination
  3. Strengthened vocal muscles
  4. Improved breath control
  5. Enhanced speech clarity and volume
  6. Reduced muscle rigidity and tremors
  7. Reduced stress and alleviated symptoms of depression and anxiety
  8. Foster social connections and reduced feelings of isolation
  9. Stimulate cognitive function and memory
  10. Provide a sense of accomplishment through music-making


What would you like to see as a future goal for your programs?


One future goal for my programs is to make them more financially accessible for clients and caregivers. I continue to partner with local and national organizations to help fund these services so they can be affordable for the public.



What events do you participate in?

I am currently in the middle of a cross-county move so my time is limited at the moment. I would like to connect and participate in the Alzheimer’s walk in my new community. I have also participated in events held by AARP, Hilarity for Charity, and other local organizations within my community.


How does this also assist the caregivers?


Caregivers can experience the benefits of music therapy both directly and indirectly.


  1. Respite and Self-Care: During music therapy sessions, caregivers can find a moment of respite to focus on their own while being while their loved one participates in a session. This offers them a chance to recharge and engage in self-care practices, ultimately replenishing their energy and resilience.


  1. Enhancing Communication and Connection: Music therapy creates a safe and supportive space for people living with dementia to express emotions and thoughts that they may struggle to communicate with their caregivers. This improved communication can foster deeper understanding and strengthen the bond between caregivers and their loved ones.


  1. Shared Experience and Relationship Support: Engaging in music therapy together provides a shared experience for caregivers and their loved ones, fostering moments of joy and connection amidst the challenges of caregiving. It offers opportunities for meaningful interaction and can help navigate the changes in their relationship as care needs evolve.


  1. Support Groups and Emotional Expression: Music therapy support groups for caregivers offer a safe environment to connect with others who are facing similar challenges. Through music, they can express their emotions and share experiences, finding solace and camaraderie in the shared journey of caregiving.


  1. Accessible Self-Care Tool: Incorporating music into self-care routines is accessible and cost-effective for caregivers. Whether it’s listening to favorite songs, engaging in musical activities, playing music while exercising, using music as a form of relaxation, or attending live music performances, music can support health and provide an outlet for self-expression.


How can someone get in touch?  What is your website?


Social Media: @HarmonyInDementia



How can others also become advocates for awareness?


Sharing your personal experiences with music therapy and other forms of caregiving support can be a powerful way to advocate for awareness and understanding. By opening up about your journey as a caregiver, including both the challenges you’ve faced and the successes you’ve experienced, you provide valuable insight into the needs of caregivers like yourself.

By expressing your specific needs, you help others understand how they can offer meaningful support. People may be eager to help but unsure of where to start. By hearing your story, they can gain a deeper understanding of what you’re going through and may be inspired to provide support in ways that you hadn’t previously considered.


In your opinion what is the key to effective advocacy?


I mentioned it earlier but I think the key to effective advocacy is sharing personal stories and experiences. By sharing our journeys, we not only raise awareness but also create meaningful connections with others who share our passions and concerns.


What other activities do you undertake to help improve and support your daily living Eg exercise and alternative remedies?


Part of my self-care practice is getting outside and being present in nature. Sometimes it’s going for a walk with my dog, driving to the beach and listening to the waves, or sitting on my front porch to enjoy the breeze and the wind chimes. Engaging in music is another important area of self-care. Playing music and learning new songs for myself, participating in group music-making outside of my work, or listening to records in my home. I even have a playlist called “Windows Down and Cruising” for times when I am in my car and want to sing out loud.


Why should people who don’t have Parkinson’s care about this? 


I think the impact of dementia and Parkinson’s disease extends far beyond those directly diagnosed. Everyone will likely encounter these conditions in some capacity, whether through a family member, friend, neighbor, or even their own future diagnosis.

By educating ourselves about these conditions, we become better equipped to advocate and support those affected. This proactive approach enables us to offer understanding, empathy, and practical assistance to individuals living with cognitive decline and their caregivers, even if we haven’t met them yet.

Ultimately, fostering awareness and education about dementia and Parkinson’s disease empowers us all to create a more compassionate and inclusive community, where everyone feels supported.


Have you had any family members or relatives affected by Parkinson’s disease?


Yes, I have had relatives and close family friends who have been affected by Parkinson’s disease.


If you had one song that would tell us more about you or represent your life, which song would it be?


Oh man, this is a challenge for me to choose just one song. There are so many songs that connect me with specific moments or significant events in my life. My life soundtrack is diverse and eclectic. I think I am going to choose a song that I feel deeply connected to and one that I enjoy singing and playing on the guitar. The song is “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty. The last chorus is what always resonates with me the most:

“You belong among the wildflowers

You belong somewhere close to me

You belong somewhere you feel free

You belong somewhere you feel free”

My interpretation of the lyrics is that it is a reminder to surround myself with people and things that bring me joy and provide meaning in my life. The song helps encourage me to center my mind and body to a place of freedom physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.


If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson’s community, what would it be?


Music can help. Music therapy is a powerful means of communication and socialization, especially for those who are living with dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Do not hesitate to explore its benefits for self-care or as a non-pharmacological approach to supporting someone you care for.