Exploring music and wellness in the lives of elders

by Various Writers

Music and how it can contribute to overall wellness is something that I am passionate about in my work as a music therapist. I have worked in hospitals, schools, women’s shelters and in private homes doing therapy work. Recently though I have been lucky enough to expand into the broader community. While the power of music continues to be explored in medical settings, and for people experiencing a wide range of conditions I firmly believe that music is just as needed in the lives of well adults!

In Waterloo this past fall a seniors music group was formed through the Wayside Centre in Waterloo, which I was invited to facilitate. This group of seniors and caregivers came together because they had one thing in common: they all enjoyed music. A few members had a background in playing instruments or being members of a choir, some had always wanted to learn how to play an instrument, others simply enjoyed listening and being a part of a musical environment. For five months we met once a week to delve into the benefits music can bring to everyone.

Each week we started with a chance to share any musical experiences the group had over the past week. When we started meeting the group had a hard time finding any. But after a little while they realized they were hearing and interacting with music all the time! There were concerts, strong memories from hearing songs on the radio, music making time with grandchildren, caroling at Christmas time. As we talked we saw how much of an impact music was having on their lives everyday in terms of mood, activities and memories.

Music and wellness is such a huge topic that each week I tried to bring in a new theme. Themes included everything from singing familiar songs, to relaxation and how music can impact sleep, to analyzing and creating their own song lyrics, to an ongoing project of creating a musical autobiography. We explored how to use music technologies, looking at how to access music through the library, attempting to de-mystify the internet, smartphones and downloading music. The group explored and played with drums, shakers, xylophones, singing bowls, the piano and even bells.

One of my favourite sessions involved improvising with some colourful handbells. As the room filled with the ringing sounds everyone in the room couldn’t help but smile! What I thought would be a fun, short activity turned into a long reminiscence over the different types of bells and how they've been a part of our lives. One person shared the joy of ringing the gigantic school bell when he was young, another of the fun they had experienced in a handbell choir. Others spoke about the sound of church bells and how the vibrations could be felt across the town when they rang. It amazes me how one simple instrument can bring up thoughts of family, childhood, mealtimes, religion, routine, exploration. The depth of our conversations demonstrated to me how powerful our everyday experiences of music can be.

Another stand out in the program was the musical autobiography project. We began with the question “What is a song that represents a part of you?” From there we looked at music connected to different life stages and events, ie: childhood, school, sports, dating, marriage, children, loss. As one person brought out a song important to them, another would find a related memory and sitll more songs. This domino effect helped us create individual lists of music the represented the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of the group. As the world is realizing the power of familiar music in memory care, creating these lists of music can be helpful in communicating with your loved ones and documenting the important moments of your life in an easy and accessible way.

I feel so privileged to have been able to be a part of a program like this. In a short time we created a wonderful community centered around music, as well as other wonderful outcomes. One person had been having difficulty sleeping. They had begun using the mindfulness and relaxation techniques we learned and were finally able to get a good nights sleep. Others had begun to listen to music at home and were consciously using music that would impact their moods. Another had taken inspiration from the group and created musical Christmas presents for her grandchildren, setting up opportunities for them to make music together. Even after the group had finished some members were looking forward to getting together and visiting the library to continue learning about music and how they could bring it home with them. The benefits of music showed up physically, emotionally, mentally, and in the strong sense of community that we created.

Too often society tells us that to be musical you must be a musician, but everyone is capable of exploring, making, enjoying music and everyone deserves to reap the benefits that music can bring to their lives.

Meghan MacMillan is a music therapist working in Kitchener-Waterloo. She specializes in mental health and music and wellness.