Turn Up the Radio! Music is Powerful Therapy for Seniors

Published In Mental Health & Well-Being

A frail, elderly woman in her mid-80s sits on the edge of her bed, her drooping body weighed down by eight-plus decades of life, the recurring health issues that have engulfed her in recent years, and the omnipresent fear of what is to come. Then a tune by Vaughn Monroe, a prominent singer and big band leader in the 1940s, issues from the satellite radio on the sill, and the smile that was the woman’s signature in her youth spreads across her face. That face gradually brightens to the point to which it is positively beaming, so bright as to rival the mid-morning sunlight streaming in the window.

“Your father and I danced to this song when we were first married,” she tells her son, sitting bedside. “We loved Vaughn Monroe, especially this song. It’s called ‘There, I Said It Again’ . . .” Her voice drifts off as she defies space and time, transported to another place.

The power of music is well-documented. and the application of music therapy for seniors is de riguer, helping seniors battling depression, dementia and other illnesses. Most of us, regardless of age, find music to be the soundtrack of our lives, conjuring up fond memories of past experiences and acquaintances. This is particularly true for the Baby Boomers; boomer nostalgia has proven to be one of the great American economic engines of recent years, and music is a big part of that.

Most of us have therefore experienced the profound, music-inspired effects of reminiscence and nostalgia. But is there something about the music itself — scientific, structural, physical — that makes it so effective as a therapy for seniors? And what about the occupation of music therapist? Given the scope of the aforementioned Baby Boom generation, could music therapist be a growth area for jobs and fields of study? What makes for an effective music therapist?

The Therapeutic Benefits of Music

Dr. Andrea Cevasco is Associate Professor of Music Therapy at the University of Alabama, and a highly experienced music therapist herself. Cevasco said the science on why music is so potent a therapy for seniors is still being researched, but it has been long known that music activates virtually all parts of the brain — as opposed to other media, which do not — and this has considerable stimulative impact.

“We are still trying to learn if there is a particular aspect of music itself, its structure, that makes it such a powerful therapeutic treatment, especially for seniors,” Dr. Cevasco said. “We’ve yet to zero in on whether it is the rhythm, timbre, melody or harmony that is the dominant element of music. It may be that is it is the combination of everything that goes into music, or perhaps each individual responds favorably to a different element.”

However, there are aspects of the science of music that are crystal clear. “For those of any age — from premature babies in the natal intensive care unit to seniors to all those in between, music lowers heart rate, blood pressure levels, stress levels. The science is clear on that,” Cevasco said.

“Dr. Alicia Clair, Professor Emeritus of Music Therapy at University of Kansas, has seen where rhythm seems to play the dominant role. “One of the first instruments humans ever employed was a drum, or the mere act of drumming. I’ve worked with a number of patients over the years for whom the beat seems to be the key.”

After all, most music starts with a downbeat, right?

“We are still trying to learn if there is a particular aspect of music itself, its structure, that makes it such a powerful therapeutic treatment, especially for seniors”

Music Therapist — A Bona Fide Profession

While music therapists play a range of instruments, with guitar being the most common, their go-to tool is that instrument with which most all of us were born: the voice. Mothers have employed singing to soothe offspring since the beginning of time. Clair relates the story of how one Alzheimer’s patient she worked with would yell at the top of their lungs during and immediately following their therapy sessions.

“What the patient was yelling was pretty much indecipherable, and there was no particular melody in it,” Clair said. “It took all of us at the facility a while to figure out that the person was singing. Then we knew this to be a positive sign, and let the patient yell to their heart’s content.”

There is much more to music therapy as a profession than merely an effective employment program for out-of-work musicians. (Remember the old joke: what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.)

Music therapy is a five-year course of study at many colleges, including at Alabama, where Chandler Sawyers is a student of Cevasco and is in his fourth year and heading toward his required internship for his fifth year. Sawyers’s story is not atypical, particularly in how he chose music therapy as his major.

“My father wanted to me to study business,” he said in a phone interview, having just returned from a music therapy conference. “My parents are very practical. They wanted me to ask myself, ‘What are the long-term career prospects for this course of study? What can I do with this down the road?’ I’ve always loved music, and played the piano since the sixth grade. I read about music therapy and the way it was being used with veterans and how it was really helping people, no matter what age. I always wanted to help people, and figured that becoming a music therapist would combine the two. And since it serves people of all ages, and with the rise in Alzheimer’s, autism, veterans with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), that I could be both practical and do some good at the same time.”

Clearly a successful music therapist must also be a graduate of the College of Musical Knowledge, being able to render songs in a wide range of genres — pop, country, gospel, folk, from the 1930s through today. And they must be ever adaptable to the needs and moods of the patients — some days semi-rockin’, some days a balladeer, some days a dirge, depending on what is called for by the patient or group, and by the team of professionals caring for them.

Music Therapists Part of a Team of Health Care Professionals

Choices about what to play are not made on a whim. Everything a music therapist does is determined by the team of professionals treating that patient or patients. In clinical settings that team will be composed of a physician, a psychologist, the physical therapist, nurses and health aides who are providing care, along with the music therapist.

“If the intent is to focus on motor skills one day, that may call for something more on the rock and roll or pop spectrum,” Clair said. “If oral communication is the priority, music of a slower tempo and more emotional, lyrical message may be in order. Of course the results and data from every session are carefully analyzed, helping us meet the patient’s needs next time around.”

Health care professionals of all stripes are among society’s true heroes and, in this era of an increasing senior population — often with their mid-career children responsible for their care — music therapists will play an important role in improving seniors’ quality of life, as well as their physical wellness. For those in the field and those aspiring to be, like Chandler Sawyers, it is an act of love. Although the power of music precedes Shakespeare, the Bard may have said it best: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

A confession: the woman responding so dramatically to the music of Vaughn Monroe was my mother, whom I took care of in my home during the last eight years of her life. She instilled in me a love of music as a child — I grew up on Tony Bennett, and wish my mother had lived to see his enduring popularity and success. The 1940s channel provided by satellite radio was a genuine refuge for my mother in her declining years. I was often amazed at how she seemed to know every lyric, often after hearing just a few notes. And I was astonished how her outlook and energy were uplifted upon hearing one of her favorite artists. I came away thinking it is impossible to overstate the power of music in senior care.

Play on, indeed.

Leave a Reply