The Golden Years – Music: Food for the Senior Soul

by Sherrin Griffin VP, Operations, Sidney SeniorCare

As a kid, I remember many a Sunday afternoon when I could hear the rich strains of big band music coming from our basement rec room. My dad would spend whatever little time he had for himself down there listening to the music he loved. In my pre-teens, I’d browse with wonder through his stack of vinyl records including everything from the Count Basie and Glenn Miller Orchestras of the big band era to circa 1970s jazz with Chuck Mangione’s Land of Make Believe.

And even today when I visit him at nearly 90, my dad’s eyes still light up and he becomes positively animated when he talks about how Chuck Mangione played the flugelhorn, and what a musical genius Stan Kenton was. He still listens to the swing and jazz of the old days on modern-day radio and TV music stations, and even though he lacks the vigour and mobility of his youth, his beloved music infuses his body like a magic potion and he comes alive, his hands gesturing to the beats. My mom, also now in her 80s, favoured feisty female singers like Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney, but in true female fashion still waxes poetic about “hunky” crooners like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and how their handsome looks and sultry voices could turn her and her girlfriends to “mush.”

There is just something about music that stirs our souls; especially music that we’ve grown up with. How many times have you heard a song which evokes such a vivid memory that it can almost transport you back in time, whether it’s the first time you drove in the car by yourself with the radio blaring, or maybe you remember the song that was playing when you had your first kiss. As we age, those associations with music continue to bring us joy and elicit happy memories. But, for seniors, the benefits of music are even more far reaching, and can improve quality of life on so many different levels:

  • Music enhances mood and can improve cognitive function including memory recall and speech. Even those with Alzheimer’s or dementia can be reached with music, by helping the elderly to reminisce and connect with positive emotions and experiences. It gives them comfort, puts them at ease and can reduce tension, stress, anxiety and fear.
  • Music promotes movement, whether that be swaying to the tune, dancing, marching, stretching or any other toe-tapping movement that can potentially lead to better mobility, increased levels of exercise and coordination improvements as well.
  • Music encourages more social interaction and engagement, while increasing self-esteem and self-expression. We bond with others over music; music encourages discussion, singing along together or simply listening as companions in mutual appreciation
  • Music can reduce pain and the time it takes to recover from injury, while promoting healthy relaxation and better sleep quality.
  • Music has the ability to improve overall mental and physical health, with the power to boost immune function.

The founder and executive director of the Rebecca Center for Music Therapy in New York, John Carpente, calls music “the most engaging and emotionally powerful stimuli.”

“Listening to music can have strong effects on people’s moods, thinking and even their physiology, which constitutes a probable reason certain songs remind us so vividly of a specific memory,” Carpente said. “Emotions and memory are very much linked, and because music is charged emotionally, it can trigger past memories.”

There are many ways that we can incorporate music as beneficial therapy for the seniors in our lives, including making playlists featuring music from their generation, encouraging singing along to their favourite songs, or helping them create an exercise routine to music to get them moving.

Even as a pre-senior “tweenie,” I have preset my “comfort” stations on the radio, and catch myself singing out loud to old 80s rock ballads, remembering with fondness the days of early MTV, big hair and going out on the town with my girlfriends. Whether I dig up my old stirrup pants and lace gloves? Well that’s another story!

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