Make Your Loved One’s Life More Musical

Young father playing guitar while little son and grandfather are watching him

Music provides a soundtrack for our lives, brings us together, energizes us and touches our hearts. And science shows that music provides powerful health benefits, as well.

These benefits begin at an early age. Babies are soothed by lullabies and learn language faster through song. Children who learn to play an instrument gain improved cognitive skills that can help them do better in school. The benefits of musical training last well into adulthood, protecting memories and even the ability to hear. And music provides comfort for people at the end of life.

Music can also be of therapeutic benefit for people living with many health conditions that are common in our later years, including Parkinson’s disease, stroke, hearing loss and aphasia (the impaired ability to speak). Perhaps the most dramatic use is in older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or a related condition.

Several years ago, the Assisting Hands Hand in Hand e-newsletter reported on the “Alive Inside” documentary, which depicted seniors with dementia participating in the Music & Memory project. When these patients were provided with iPods loaded with music of the era in which they grew up, they often experienced a remarkable improvement in lucidity and awareness, even in the ability to speak.

Since then, Brown University researchers have been studying the impact of this project. They found that when nursing homes adopted the program, “residents with dementia became significantly more likely to discontinue antipsychotic and antianxiety medications and significantly less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors.”

It seemed like a miracle, but how does it work? University of Utah radiologists actually watched it happen! They used MRI imaging to observe the salience network, a part of the brain that they call “an island of remembrance that is spared from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.” They could see that music activated the brains of patients with dementia and improved communication among brain areas. In April 2018, study author Jace King reported, “When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive. Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality.”

No matter what your loved one’s condition, music can be a powerful life enrichment tool, lessening depression and anxiety and helping them feel more in touch with the world.

Here are seven suggestions from experts as you add more music to your loved one’s life:

  1. Upgrade your loved one’s music world. Do an inventory. Maybe your loved one’s music is all on vinyl or CDs. Or, they may have listened to a favorite radio station for years—only to have it gobbled up by a talk radio network. New music technologies can fill the gap. If you’re not up to speed yourself, ask a grandkid to help you create music playlists from your loved one’s music collection. Locate online radio stations or music services that play music your loved one likes. (But remember, unless your loved one is tech savvy, keep it simple so they can use it even if you’re not there.)
  2. How about a music class? Community colleges and parks departments offer instrument and voice lessons for students of every age and ability. Your loved one might join a choir or an informal instrumental group. Senior centers host sing-alongs. Classes for people with dementia may be offered. And what about dancing? Seniors who are totally unmotivated to exercise may be unable to resist when music is added.
  3. Take your loved one to live music performances. Listening to music is great. Seeing it performed live is even better! You don’t have to buy pricey tickets to the symphony or a concert. Community bands and orchestras often perform for free—even outdoors when the weather is nice, which can be a good activity for people with dementia who have trouble remaining quiet in an auditorium. What about school band and orchestra performances? Even if your loved one doesn’t have grandchildren in the group, they may love watching these budding musicians.
  4. Consider your loved one’s tastes. Just as some music can transport us to our happy place and bring forth beneficial emotions, other music might have the opposite effect. Country music, opera, hip hop, heavy metal and jazz have their fans—and also people who are not fans! Learn whether your loved one prefers to stay with old favorites, or to explore new music within their preferred genres.
  5. If you’re looking for familiar tunes from your loved one’s earlier years, do your homework. Said one boomer, “My kids bought a collection of music for seniors. It was mostly Big Band-era tunes, but I was a Led Zeppelin fan!” What music was popular when your loved one was a teen and young adult?
  6. Sometimes it’s best to turn the music off. People with hearing loss or memory problems may be overloaded when there’s background noise, including music. Look for signs that your loved one is having trouble hearing you or focusing. We’re less efficient at multitasking as we grow older, and that includes doing something while music is playing.
  7. Ask your health care provider for some ideas about incorporating music into your loved one’s care. A certified music therapist can suggest ways music can help meet your loved one’s physical and emotional needs.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.