Three Ways Caregivers Can Use Music Therapeutically

Singing while we walk keeps Dad's pace up.

As a music therapist, I worked for many years with older adults and children with special needs using music as a tool to achieve non-musical goals. I used music to encourage expression and social interaction, physical activity and movement, brain stimulation, healing, verbal expression and communication, expression of emotions, reminiscence and even achieve simple eye contact.

I created a hand-chime choir with my adult day services center participants who traveled around performing for their peers at other centers. One of my favorite experiences was the intergenerational choir I conducted. Older adults who attended a senior center  joined children from a local school - we performed at the Ohio Governor's Conference on Aging!  Talk about a self-esteem builder and instilling a sense of purpose - singers of every age were thrilled.

When my grandparents were living, I used my music therapy skills with them as well. My grandmother Genevieve had dementia, and eventually became blind. She loved music. I have wonderful memories of my visits with Granddaddy CV and her, especially when I fixed their old phonograph and got out those hard, brittle 78 records and we'd play them, singing and dancing together and laughing deliciously at our silliness. When she could no longer dance, I would play piano for her and sing. Even as her verbal skills diminished, she could still sing her favorite hymns. When the words would no longer come, the melodies remained and she could hum along. In the last days of her life, the healing power of music was calming for her. (Read the AARP Bulletin story from Sally Abrahms here.)

Now - 30 years after I got my degree in music therapy - I find myself using my music therapy skills with my own parents, who live with me. My Mom enjoys music, and she had a stroke more than 20 years ago. We've used music therapeutically for her over the years - from melodic intonation therapy to enhance her verbal skills to using music to motivate her to move her body and enjoy exercises.

My Dad now has Alzheimer's disease and glaucoma. As his vision deteriorates, and his cognitive abilities slowly diminish, his activities are becoming more limited. But these four things are the joys in his life - truly his quality of life: his family (especially Mom), physical activity (he loves to walk and exercise,) his dog, Jackson and music. Music is indispensible for those with Alzheimer's. When he sings - his true essence shines through.


These are some of the quick and easy ways I incorporate music into our everyday lives:

  • I keep a CD player on the back porch where Dad likes to sit in the sunshine and listen to his favorite tunes - everything from classical to World War II-era music to Josh Groban. It transforms a solitary time into a fun, relaxing or stimulating  experience and activity for him.
  • I keep a DVD library and I use the DVR to tape musicals (hint: TCM airs them frequently!). We watch them often as the plots are easier to follow, they keep Dad's attention and Mom enjoys them ... and Dad and I sing along! Dad and I frequently have spontaneous dance contests as we view them. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Sound of Music and Oklahoma are just a few of our faves.
  • Dad likes to take Jackson for several walks every day, and I turn our walks into musical adventures. Physical activity and music are a golden combination for brain stimulation. It's amazing to me the songs that Dad will remember when we're walking - the other day he sang one of his college fraternity songs for me that I had never heard before - see video I shot (above) when we got home as he sang it for Mom. He's so adorable! When we walk, if he begins to drag his feet, I encourage him to play drill sergeant (he's a WWII veteran) and he calls out the march and then we sing patriotic songs. His pace instantly picks up and the shuffling stops.

These are just a few ways  I use music, and you can too. Music really is a unique and special tool and you don't have to be a professional music therapist to utilize it in your daily routines to enhance yours and your loved ones' lives. I use music therapeutically for myself too - to calm, relax, energize and express my caregiving experience.

If you're a caregiver and want to learn more about how you can use music, or engage a trained music therapist with your loved one, please join me for an online webchat on Tuesday, March 19 from 3 to 4 p.m. ET. Share your ideas and I'll share mine.

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