Music Therapy: Providing Many Benefits to Aging Adults

Senior couple enjoying musicMusic plays such a major role in so many daily activities. It serves as a backdrop for work and for play, for dancing, for worship, while we drive to work or the store, and even spending quality time with family and friends. It’s no surprise then that music has the power to bring back memories—both fond and sometimes sad—from days gone by. But for seniors, music can be so much more.

The NAMM Foundation cites a number of facts and statistics on the benefits of music therapy, including:

  • Playing music is shown to reduce stress and actually reverse the body’s response to stress at the DNA level, according to findings from Dr. Barry Bittman.
  • For patients who had undergone surgery, Bryan Memorial Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska, and St. Mary’s Hospital in Mequon, Wisconsin found that playing music lowered heart rates and calmed both blood pressures and respiration rates.
  • The rhythmic cues offered by music can aid in retraining the brain following a stroke or other neurological impairment, according to findings by Michael Thaurt, director of Colorado State University’s Center of Biomedical Research in Music.

These findings alone provide ample evidence that music can be beneficial for adults (and children) in a variety of situations, but let’s take a closer look at some of the specific benefits of music therapy for older adults.

Music can help aging adults with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia recall moments from their past

Music is one tool that can produce outcomes even in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.”When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.” Music is powerful in this way because it the “rhythmic and other well-rehearsed responses require little to no cognitive or mental processing.”

Think about the last time your favorite song came on the radio. If you found yourself subconsciously tapping your fingers on the steering wheel or tapping your foot under your office chair, you’ve experienced this effect firsthand.

Music has strong connections to memories

Most people have probably also experienced the subconscious mood effects certain music can have on your demeanor. The song to which you danced your first dance at your wedding long ago, for instance, may make you feel content and happy without consciously trying to alter your mood or attitude. Likewise, songs that bring back sad memories can make us feel melancholy, even if you don’t actively think about the sad memory from your past.

Because music does play such an important role in our lives, it’s likely that many of your memories from days gone by are associated with a particular song or tune. When you think about a memory from your past now, the song may not immediately come to mind—but if you hear a song on the radio associated with that memory, you may find yourself suddenly thinking about an important event in your life.

That’s why music is so powerful for seniors with memory impairment; when music is played that carries strong associations to long-term memories, seniors who ordinarily may be unable to recall or discuss these life events may suddenly recall memories they thought had been long forgotten. Because of this effect, seniors participating in music therapy often then have the opportunity to share stories from their past with friends and loved ones, providing socialization and a lift in spirits that is often much welcomed.

Music encourages seniors to be physically active

The Music Therapy Center of California points out that for many older adults, mobility and range of motion can be issues due to physical disorders that affect the central nervous system (such as Parkinson’s Disease or Tardive Dyskinesia), the musculoskeletal system (such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis), or muscle weakness, joint stiffness, pain, and other common conditions that can arise throughout aging.

Music therapy can be quite beneficial for seniors suffering from these conditions by encouraging physical activity. Even slow, rhythmic movements while an older adult remains seated can help to improve strength and mobility. The Music Therapy Center of California explains, “Music, dancing and movement activities can aid in maintaining walking endurance, improve range of motion, strength, functional hand movements and finger dexterity and improve limb coordination. For instance, using instruments (such as drums) can be a motivating way to purposefully improve hand use, cross midline, and reach high/low. Co-treatment with an occupational or physical therapist also may enhance the effectiveness of music therapy strategies. Relaxation with music, toning (singing with vowels focused on a certain area in the body), and other techniques may help reduce the perception of pain and the need for pain medication.”

Increased verbalization, emotional release, and social benefits offered by music therapy

Overall, music therapy can help aging adults achieve a variety of therapeutic goals. Laurel Redecker is a member of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging who taught organ and piano lessons at a senior center and, upon realizing the therapeutic effects music had on the seniors she worked with, decided to pursue a degree in Music Therapy for the Aging, which she received at the age of 54.  Redecker talked to the Seattle Times about the goals of music therapy for older adults, including “appropriate release of emotions, increased verbalization and social skills, reinforced listening skills, and enhanced self-mage and personal development.”

Redecker explains to the Seattle Times, “Many problems specific to the aging population can be helped by music therapy. These include loss of independence, isolation, possible loneliness or depression, or just being perceived by themselves and others as `old and useless.’ Music therapy, such as learning to play an instrument, can help build self esteem, offer socialization, and help express individuality and creativity.”

With benefits like these, it’s no surprise that music is such a beloved part of culture for people of all ages. But for seniors, music can provide the key to unlocking memories from the past, as well as a lifeline for connecting with others in the present.

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