Healthy Aging At Home: Music as Medicine

The health benefits seniors receive when listening to or creating music are considerable. So much so, that music as therapy has been well researched, and increasingly acknowledged as alternative or complementary forms of treatment for conditions such as depression and dementia.


While more structured one-to-one or group programs exist, the many benefits of music can be enjoyed in casual settings with family or friends. Even in our current times of Covid, getting your elderly loved one to listen to their favourite music over Skype, Zoom – while not ideal – will provide them with similar benefits.

Regular opportunities to listen to music, learn or be re-introduced to playing and practicing a musical instrument and singing help improve blood flow to the different areas in the brain that are responsible for a number of cognitive functions.


Memory and Concentration


Music activities that focus on getting seniors to learn new songs, or teaching them how to play a musical instrument are especially helpful in improving memory, and with increased connections made in the brain and reinforced with practice, the better the ability to retain and recall information.


What can you and music do to help with your loved one’s memory and concentration?

  • Encourage them to listen to their favourite songs from “way back when”, ask them questions and ideally record them for the genealogist in the family.

  • Re-introduce them to a musical instrument they used to play, if feasible. You’ll be astonished at the muscle memory they’ve retained, even if they think they’ve forgotten.

  • If their memory is good, get them to teach their grandchildren some new songs thanks to technology that brings us platforms such as Skype, Zoom or other real-time connection if physical distancing is an issue.

Communication Skills


Seniors with dementia will often lose the ability to clearly communicate, but music is especially beneficial as it slows down the decline in the part of the brain responsible for language skills. Music has the added benefit of allowing the elderly to connect with their emotions, particularly when listening to music from their younger years.


For those who have suffered a stroke involving the left side of the brain, singing can be beneficial to improving their speaking skills, as the ability to sing is controlled by the right side of the brain while control of regular speech is on the left side. Regular practice also helps keep all speech muscles toned and functional.


What can you and music do to help your loved one’s communication skills?

  • Vocal warm ups that singers use can help them practice a wide range of sound combinations while reinforcing the fine motor skills needed to work and tone the muscles needed for speech.

  • Encourage your loved one to communicate through song; choosing ones that can express how they’re feeling in the moment.

  • While they’re reminiscing, have questions to prompt them to talk more about the memories they are having. They don’t have to be relevant to the music. Ask questions about their childhood; their favourite toy, pet or school subject. You’ll help them to access other memories, concentrate and improve their speech motor skills at the same time.

Depression, Stress and Anxiety


Music therapy has demonstrated its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety by enhancing mood, focus, concentration and sense of self accomplishment and satisfaction. Enjoying the process of learning how to play a musical instrument allows for an increased production of chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for improving mood, reducing pain and the regulation of stress hormones that contribute to stress and anxiety.


The use of music and songs with particular rhythmic patterns, notes, cords and tonality helps seniors to relax. There are genres of music that can help to lower heart rate, blood pressure and again, lower stress hormones.


What can you and music do to help your loved one’s depression, stress or anxiety?

  • Play relaxing music your loved one’s enjoy (Youtube is a fantastic source). Along with easy, slow, deep breathing exercises, soothing music actually lowers heart rate and blood pressure by reducing stress hormones. The breathing exercises bring oxygen to the brain which has a calming effect.

  • Over time, regular sessions of relaxing, soothing music have been shown to reduce the need for anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications. Consult with your loved one’s GP to monitor and reduce dosages when safe to do so.

  • Engage other senses using their personal possessions such as a favourite scarf, a piece of jewelry or other personal memento to prompt other memories while they’re listening to the music. Be careful not to have too many items as it could overwhelm them.

Movement, Fine Motor Skills and Muscle Memory


Music is a great way to get your loved one moving in whatever capacity they can. There are a number of simple movement exercises that can be used to improve muscle tone, retain the fine motor skills needed for expression, speech and hand-eye coordination. Done in time to the music, the exercises are fun and stimulating. If you’re able to involve other family members or friends, doing the exercises as a group provides the added benefit of social connection and support.


What can you and music do to help your loved one with movement, fine motor skills and muscle memory?

  • Use energetic, up-beat music, and encourage them to clap their hands or tap their toes. For those with limited movement such as being in a wheelchair, movement can come from shrugging their shoulders, waving their arms or nodding their heads in time to the music.

  • Depending on their ability, consider fun props to use in time to the music. Passing a beach ball or waving a scarf has the added benefit of them handling different materials that help to enhance their sense of touch.

  • Get them to use simple instruments such as a small drum, tambourine or maracas. Different instruments have different sounds and sensations. It helps to build on their vocabulary, as they’ll need different words to describe them.


Social Connection


Music sessions, whether done in a more structured setting, or with family and friends, promote social connection and interaction, a vital part of improving your loved one’s mental and emotional well-being.


If your loved one is in a care facility, this is a powerful way for them to connect, make new friends and feel as if they are a part of the community, especially if they are newly arrived and are going through what’s an often challenging transition from their own home to a facility.

If your loved one enjoys singing, our time of Covid has put a damper on joining larger groups such as choirs. A second-best option is to either find a local, smaller group who are meeting at a physical distance outdoors, or check out online groups. Many posts to social media have proven this is doable, with lovely results.


What can you and music do to help your loved one with social connection?

  • Schedule weekly music sessions, in person or remotely if need be. They don’t have to be long, but consistency is key. Like exercise, there won’t be noticeable results if sessions are done randomly. Keep in mind what times of day your loved one would be most open to participating.

  • If your loved one played a musical instrument in a band or were part of a choir in their younger years, encourage them to reminisce about their fellow musicians or choir members and their shared experiences.

  • Time is often a big challenge for caregivers, so consider enrolling your loved one in a more structured environment. You can find out more information at the Music Therapy Association of British Columbia (www.mtabc.com)

The benefits of using music as medicine are numerous and can be quite profound. Direct outcomes of using music intervention include improved cognition and mood. Reduced depression, aggression and agitation in turn reduce the use of medications. In care settings, care staff experienced a reduction in stress on the job and less sick leave needed.

Whether in an at-home or facility setting, the benefits of music ripple out beyond your elderly loved one. Family, friends and care staff all experience positive benefits from the regular exposure to and use of music in their life.

Do you need help with taking care of your elderly?


Contact Nancy to inquire about a Caregiver Action Plan assessment where all aspects of care are reviewed in order to help families create a more dynamic and positive experience for the care of their loved ones.


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Nancy Glover, a healthy aging advocate, mentors extraordinary women and men who have stepped into the challenging role of caring for their elderly spouse or parent by managing their well-being in the later stages of life. Blending first-hand expertise with practical step by step systems to support the needs, goals, and desires of the elderly spouse or parent, Nancy helps caregivers maneuver the complex and often challenging role with supportive advocacy and resources that equally focus on everyone’s well-being. Learn more about her at www.agingwithgrace.ca and sign up to receive timely information and strategies to empower caregivers and families in transition.