1/29/2021 | By Kari Smith

Melodies evoke memories – from the songs you listened to with the windows rolled down in your first car, to your favorite hymn or your wedding song, and so on. So many poignant moments in our lives are marked by the music we remember them by – so it’s fitting that music therapy for seniors is frequently used in residential senior housing, senior centers, and hospice care. Music has proven benefits for the brain!

As a professional musician, I have performed in many elder care facilities, and even in hospice situations. The senior audience is often lively, and the appreciation is often far greater than that of your typical listener in a traditional music venue like a bar or coffeehouse. It never fails to amaze me how recognizing a song from their youth or young adulthood can transform the face of a senior who was previously expressionless; or how singing a favorite hymn or tune can bring peace, not only to someone passing – but also to their loved ones. Music is a powerful, easily accessible tool that can spark memories even when family members are unrecognizable to a senior suffering from memory care issues. But you don’t have to be a music therapist to offer music therapy for seniors. We’ve got some very simple tips on how to bring the joy of melody to your aging loved ones.

Get Your Instruments Out

As a musical family member or loved one of a senior who plays, you can simply get your instruments out and play. Seniors sometimes have limited living space, but there are smaller versions of instruments – such as quality travel-sized guitars, or unweighted, 61-key keyboards – that still give the experience of playing a piano with much less weight and space.

Choose Songs That Bring Back Good Memories

As a child learning the guitar from my dad, I learned “That Lucky Old Sun” by Frankie Laine, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” by Hank Williams, “The Blackboard of My Heart” by Hank Thompson – all songs that were from well before my time. To this day, I can play those songs, and it still takes me back decades in time to when I was a child learning chords on that clunky Epiphone 12-string. With their help, if possible, compile a list of favorites into a playlist that your loved one can easily open and play. If your loved one is not able to articulate favorites, you can choose songs that were popular when your loved one was a young adult, and observe how they respond.

Provide the Player

Music in a therapeutic sense does not have to be live, although the interaction of a live musician with a listener may provide a more personal connection. These days, one can play music using a radio, a cable TV music channel, an mp3 player, a CD, a tablet or laptop – the possibilities are endless. Choosing music streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Pandora allow the user to access pre-existing song lists based on a favorite artist, a specific genre or decade, or to make your own playlist.

Match the Music to the Mood

Think about the times you listen to music. When you clean, you may listen to something up-tempo that keeps you happy. When you exercise, perhaps you listen to music with driving rhythms to motivate your workout. In the same way, choose music that fits the mood of what you are trying to accomplish. If you are trying to play soothing music to calm an agitated senior, choose songs that will resonate with them. These may include comforting hymns, soothing classical music, or easy-listening tunes. To motivate your loved one – perhaps through physical therapy exercises or an activity they don’t enjoy – choose upbeat songs that you know to be favorites when incorporating music therapy for seniors.

Music and Movement Go Together

Can you imagine dancing without music? Even if you are just swaying in your chair, it’s hard NOT to move when one hears lively music. Even if a senior is only able to clap their hands or march in place, it still gets the body moving. Listening to music while walking – no matter the pace – can provide a rhythm to follow, and motivation to go further. Programs involving music therapy for seniors often provide instruments that require limited movement and are easy to play: tambourines, triangles, hand drums, and so on. Singing is a beneficial activity too, as it utilizes and exercises the lungs; recalling lyrics also stimulates the brain.

Mothers sing lullabies to their babies because music is comforting, and the soothing nature of music never changes throughout life. Music can reduce stress, aid sleep, stimulate cognitive function, sooth those fighting anxiety or depression, stimulate patients with memory care issues, and bring folks together when music is presented as a social activity.

When listening to music you love, the brain releases dopamine, a “feel-good” neurochemical. Not only is listening to music enjoyable, there is scientific reason that music can be effective in serving the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of seniors … and indeed everyone.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith