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The benefits of music therapy for older people

Last Updated at November 5th 2021
Everyone has a favourite song or favourite artist that they like to listen to every now and then, but do you know that music can have a big impact on your overall health and wellbeing as an older person?

Key points:

  • You don't have to be musical to receive benefits from music therapy

  • Music therapy can be provided in different ways and will be dependent on your needs or goals

  • Older people can have physical, mental, cognitive, emotional, and social benefits from music therapy

Group of older people in a music therapy session
Music therapy can have positive health and wellbeing benefits on older people. [Source: Shutterstock]

Music therapy is well utilised by professionals - Registered Music Therapists - on older people as there are huge quality of life benefits from listening or participating in music, whether that is physically or mentally.

The best part of music therapy is you don't have to have a musical bone in your body to participate and reap the rewards.

Registered Music Therapist, Winifred Beevers of Melbourne, has seen the huge impact music has on the lives of older people in how they act physically, emotionally, and mentally.

"[Music therapy] is very interactive and it requires a response and reaction from the person we are working with. People do respond and they can respond, verbally, intellectually, cognitively, they can respond emotionally - often at the same time - and they can respond musically," explains Ms Beevers.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy can address the emotional, physical, mental and social needs of older people in a way that many other therapies can't. 

A certified music therapist will work with an older person, in any care or home setting, and individually or in a group, to create a safe environment to listen and enjoy music or to participate in music related activities.

Therapists will assess your physical and emotional wellbeing, cognitive skills, and social and communication abilities by your responses to music therapy activities. They will generally design a session for you or a group depending on your needs or the group's needs.

Ms Beevers says that her sessions can change from person to person, depending on what they need.

Some activities include:

  • Call and response

  • Singing along to songs

  • Music quizzes, like playing the first part of a song and asking for the artists name

  • Conversation around music

  • Creating music for scratch or doing lyric replacement

  • Developing tailored music, playlists, or songbooks for clients

  • Percussion sessions including follow the leader activities

  • Dancing or moving your body to the music

  • Reminiscing by listening to music

She finds that quizzing older people about music can stir up past emotions or memories that they may not have thought about in years.

"I might play the first phrase, or couple, of a song and stop and say 'what is this song?' That cues memories, it stimulates cognition, it prompts people to talk and think and interact, and to not only do that but to actually act on it and verbalise," explains Ms Beevers.

"And you can do that with someone who doesn't say much or is unable to say much, might have lost their voice for whatever reason, but they will sing that melody back to you. That one simple interaction or intervention you can get a very clear, loud, very active response, or you can get a much less active response which for the person can be highly significant."

Music therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on people with cognitive impairments, communication impairments, physical impairments, for pain management, and for grief and loss, which is why it is so widely used across a range of demographics.

Ms Beevers adds that music therapy can be a form of counselling for people who utilise the service.

For older people at risk of social isolation or loneliness, the service can be a great way to engage with others in group settings, especially as unaddressed loneliness and isolation can result in an older person spiralling into depression and self-neglect.

Benefits in older people

Music has the ability to promote better brain health and can have a good effect on other conditions an older person may be experiencing.

"In terms of psychologically, we don't really know why music makes our brain light up, we just know it does," says Ms Beevers. 

"We know that when we do brain scans of musicians [they look] different to non-musicians. But we know both musicians and non-musicians brain scans light up when they are listening to music, when they are performing, or when they are singing. And it's all different parts of the brain that light up. It's the speech parts, and the emotion parts, and the memory parts." 

The Australian Music Therapy Association says that there are so many different benefits to music therapy depending on what a person is trying to achieve.

Music therapy has been used to improve community and social skills, including verbal and non-verbal communication, physical speech function, social interaction, and independence.

For people with mental health and wellbeing issues, music therapy can reduce feelings of anxiety or stress, assist in mood and energy level regulation, and manage challenging behaviours like anger and frustration.

If you have impairments to physical movement or coordination, then music therapy can assist with gross motor function and control, improve fine motor skills, improve balance and physical independence, assist with sleep, and also improve heart health and the respiratory system.

Music therapy has also been utilised to assist with pain reduction as it can direct a person's focus on pain away to something else. There are many studies that have found music therapy can be used to manage various types of pain in people and is a readily available, low risk and an inexpensive way to provide pain management.

Ms Beevers has worked with a lot of clients providing treatment for respiratory issues, speech recovery, or neurological disorders that affect swallowing and breathing by utilising singing and breath control to improve their quality of life and outcomes.

"A lot of people can address the issue of shortness of breath or shallow breathing, but doing it through singing and music is enjoyable and fun and the compliance rates are a lot higher."

She adds that putting music on in the background while doing physical exercise can actually encourage a person to do more work than without. For instance, say an older person can do six repetitions of an exercise successfully, whereas, if music was playing they would continue doing the exercise for two minutes straight with the song.

"Well chosen music - and it has to be well chosen - motivates people to move, makes them energised, and often they will move for longer."

Dementia and music therapy

People with dementia can also benefit from this therapy as music therapy has been shown to improve core executive functions and increase memory and attention abilities.

Ms Beevers says, "Music can cue memories and it can cue a response - and almost an automatic response. People with dementia often remember words and melodies really well. They may not be able to tell you what the song is but they can sing the melody.

"Their processing time takes a fraction longer, but it prompts thought processes. They might not be able to remember what they had for dinner last night but they remember going to dance, musicals or concerts and they can talk about those."

Additionally, music therapy can be utilised as a de-escalation technique for a person with dementia or as a potential prevention for difficult behaviour.

Some therapists can create tailored playlists for their clients with dementia that they can listen to which may keep them calm when waiting for appointments.

Ms Beevers has found music therapy capable of delaying an episode or minimising the severity of a challenging behaviour.

Music therapy in everyday life

Having music in your daily routine can not only be beneficial for you, but also for your carer or aged care facility who assists you. Certain tasks, like bathing or helping someone get dressed, can become easier by utilising the right music during these tasks.

"One of the things I will do is suggest music to play during bathing or toileting or feeding times because that can often, if you have paid carers and they are unfamiliar to the person, it can be a very stressful time," explains Ms Beevers. 

"There was good evidence many years ago that background music, non-vocal or instrumental music, playing when people were eating meant they often sat for longer meaning they ate more, improving their nutritional intake." 

It doesn't have to be difficult or expensive to add music to your day-to-day tasks. You can use your Home Care Package funding to purchase a waterproof portable speaker, which can be placed in the shower or be used during daily chores that may cause anxiety.

Ms Beevers says that the trick to utilising music in everyday life is finding the right music for the individual, as it will result in the best outcomes.

"It's about finding the music that people like. There is a saying that 'unwanted sound is just noise'. If you have ever been fed up with Christmas carols, then you get it," says Ms Beevers.

"It's about finding the music that is right for the person and then sourcing it and providing it."

What tunes would you love to listen to again for the first time? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Keeping your brain healthy as you age
Quality of life factors for older Australians
Mental benefits of puzzles and brain games for older people
Diversional therapy in aged care

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