What is Music Therapy?
Music therapy has been widely used as a treatment option to support healing. Music therapy can range from active approaches like playing a musical instrument and singing to receptive approaches which focus on listening to music.
Music therapy can be focused on achieving neurological results through the use of music to influence functional changes in the brain.
Music therapy has had good results with individuals suffering from dementia or recovering from a stroke. While the evidence base is still developing, in this post I will look at seven ways that you can use music to support your mom or dad.
Seven Beneficial Ways to Use Music
Active Music Therapy
- Playing a musical instrument.
Reading music and translating that language into the movement of your fingers is a complex activity that can challenge the neural networks. It also brings joy to the individual. If your mom or dad played an instrument at one time, encourage them to take it up again.
Learning a complex instrument like the oboe or saxophone may not be in the cards, but many retirement residences and senior centers have bell choirs. These bell choirs are great ways to participate in a group setting with a musical instrument (a bell of a particular tone) and make music together. A good choir director can create some pretty amazing music!
- Singing has a great capacity to move the individual.
Music and singing touch people in ways that almost nothing else can. They can move us in powerful and deep ways. Individuals with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia will respond to music when they might not respond to other stimuli.
One experience I had with a woman (we’ll refer to her as Dorothy) illustrated the power of music for me. Dorothy was fairly advanced in her dementia. We started working together doing exercise and activities. One activity that we did which really made her light up was to sit at the piano and sing. Some of her favourite songs were from the Sound of Music. I would sit at the piano with her beside me in her wheelchair. I would pick out the melody and we would sing. This gave her great joy and helped motivate her to begin to communicate.
Singing praise and worship songs can also have a big impact on the spirit of your mom or dad. There are lots of choirs that cater to seniors who just want to sing.
- Move to a beat.
Rhythm work has been very effective in helping individuals who have suffered a stroke recover their ability to walk. Exercises to a rhythmic beat have had a positive impact on improving stride and gait.
This can also translate into helping motivate your mom or dad to walk at a good pace. Getting exercise is very important for brain health and using music to improve walking speed and stride can be very effective.
Kinesthetic learning involves moving your body. It is another way of learning and some brains react best to learning by doing. Dancing is a kinesthetic way to experience music.
If your mom or dad was into swing dancing or ballroom dancing you might consider finding an instructor to help you dust off your dancing skills. Check out your local seniors’ centre or make contact with a local retirement home to see if they have a monthly dance.
Receptive Music Therapy
- Listening is also a great way to enjoy music.
Listening to music and experiencing the emotions of different pieces can be a very powerful experience. Encourage your mom or dad to find music that they enjoy. Playing a piece of music and asking people to tell you what they felt or what image came to mind is a great way to have a discussion. It is the type of discussion that is accessible to everyone.
- Draw while listening to music
Freehand drawing is also a great way to engage the brain while listening to music. Encourage your mom or dad to sketch a scene that is reflected by the music. You may want to introduce paints — water colours or acrylics and have them paint as they listen. This gives them the option of creating abstract art that taps more into feelings. This can be a good option for individuals who feel like they cannot draw or have lost the capacity to draw.
- Meditate while listening to music.
Meditation can be enhanced by listening to music. Music can help an individual calm their inner mind so that they can focus on meditating. This particular approach is very good for relaxation. Have your mom or dad return to a scene of happiness or relaxation. It may be a beach scene or place which they associate with good memories. As they listen to the music, they can put themselves in that spot and become calm.
Effects on Mood and Motivation
One of the overall effects of dementia is the destruction of the ability to self-motivate. This is an area that families often find very difficult to deal with. The individual they love and care about no longer seems to be interested in things that used to interest them. They no longer take part in activities and often spend long hours sitting in a chair, just staring out the window.
This type of behaviour can be particularly difficult to deal with. I remember one woman who just couldn’t understand why her previously very active husband would sit in his chair all day long.
When motivation no longer comes from inside it is necessary to create outside influences that can improve motivation.
Research has shown that music can be very effective in creating and improving motivation. There are lots of great choices from Mozart to video game music collections that can be very inspiring. You may need to experiment with different options.
Music can also have a positive effect on mood.
Depression is a very real problem for seniors. Using music to enhance mood is an easy (and healthy) way to lift a ‘low’ feeling. Choose positive uplifting music. Move to the music — since exercise is also a good antidote for depression.
Music therapy is a growing field and you can translate some of their approaches into your routine. Use music to motivate and bring joy to the life of your mom or dad.
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.