Carla Tanguay, MA, MT-BC
Connecting with Seniors though Music
When I ask Mary what she had for dinner last night, she rarely can recall. She gets frustrated when the name of her youngest grandchild escapes her. But when we start singing her favorite song, Mary remembers every word. Her eyes sparkle, her toes start tapping, and suddenly the years, aches, and pains melt away. “That was my husband’s favorite,” she tells me. “We never missed a Saturday night dance.”
Music is part of our lives from the moment we are born. In every culture, mothers sing to their babies. We teach our children songs to help them learn their ABCs and to clean up their toys. When we are teenagers, music becomes our anthem, proclaiming our identity as different from the generations before. And songs are never as good as the ones we heard as young adults.
Our love of music does not decrease as we get older, and the benefits of engaging in music support its continued use throughout old age. Studies exploring the benefits of music therapy with seniors show that:
Music can reduce pain and anxiety and have a beneficial impact on heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.
Music therapy increases quality of life in people with serious or terminal illnesses.
Music therapy interventions can improve strength, mobility, and range of motion.
Music therapy sessions can reduce agitation, anxiety, and depression in people with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Singing improves speech in people who have had a stroke or TBI.
People who have Parkinson’s Disease show improvements in speech and motor skills through music therapy.
Perhaps the most important thing that happens in music therapy with older adults is something that can’t be measured in a research study: Connection.
Music connects us to other people through a meaningful, shared experience. A tear in an eye, a hand reaching out towards mine, a heartfelt “thank you.” These are frequent occurrences in music therapy sessions, even the first time that I meet someone. Sharing a familiar song or joining our voices together creates an instant sense of connection. Music is a social activity, passed down through generations and shared with others around campfires, in stadiums, and over cradles. Social connections often decrease as we get older, but music provides a way to reawaken and strengthen those bonds.
Music connects us to our history. There have been countless times when a family member has told me, “I never heard that story before. Thank you for helping (him/her) remember that.” Music brings back memories. Playing a song that was important during a particular time in someone’s life, or a song that evokes a special event or place, often triggers memories that may otherwise be forgotten. Why this happens is a complex neural phenomenon (explained well here), but when it happens, it can provide a sense of peace and wellbeing to those who may otherwise struggle to remember or make sense of their past. In music therapy, we can build off those feelings and improve the overall quality of life of seniors.
Music connects us to our selves. While music may trigger memories of the past, music making happens in the present moment. In each moment, it offers the opportunity to sing along, to dance, tap or clap, or to just let the sounds wash away stress or worry. Music has measurable effects on several physiological measures, including heart rate, respirations, and blood pressure. It can also impact one’s current mood, attention, and motivation. Music therapists use this ability of music to connect with our bodies and minds to help older adults reach goals related to how they want to feel- whether that is to be more physically active, to relax and reduce stress, or to improve attention and concentration.
Interested in learning more about music therapy with seniors? Check out some of my favorite resources below:
Neurologist Oliver Sacks talks about the power of music for people with dementia (video)
Why all seniors should get involved in music (article)
Music Therapy for Caregivers (article)
Music Therapy in Senior Care Facilities (video)
Don't miss our related blog posts:
Music Therapy Across the Lifespan