Healing Harmonies: Music as Medicine for Seniors and Caregivers


Human beings are governed by rhythms. From our pulsing heartbeat, to the cadence of our speech patterns, to when we fall asleep and wake up—countless rhythms drive our existence.

Perhaps this is why we are so mesmerized by music.

"From lullabies to funeral songs, music is a part of our lives from the moment we enter the world, until the moment we leave it," says Diane Snyder-Cowan, director of the Elisabeth Prentiss Bereavement Center for Hospice of the Western Reserve.

She describes a phenomenon called, "entrainment," whereby a person's biological rhythms become synchronized with the music they're listening to.

Entrainment exerts such a powerful force that simply listening to and focusing on soothing music can actually help a person enter a more relaxed state of physical and mental functioning. Once a person enters this state, they're better able to physically and mentally process things—from medications to emotions.

A professional music therapist, Snyder-Cowan is part of a specially-trained group of care providers who use melodies to achieve a particular treatment goal. "Music therapy is all about the intentional use of music to bring about a particular change; whether that change is therapeutic, emotional or spiritual," she says.

Melodies may trump meds

Music therapists work in a variety of different settings, from hospitals to halfway houses.

In the elder care context, they can be found in senior care facilities, rehabilitation clinics and hospice and palliative care centers, helping aging adults manage everything from chronic pain to Alzheimer's disease.

"I've seen the power of music so many times in older adults," says Snyder-Cowan. "It's such a powerful tool and can be accessed so easily."

One well-known application of music therapy is helping people with advanced dementia communicate and engage with their surroundings. (See how this man in a nursing home reacts to hearing music from his era)

Music is so beneficial for people struggling with memory loss because it's easier for them to access the memory of a melody than top recall a name or event. "The memory of the song stays with them much longer than regular memories," says Snyder-Cowan.

In some cases, music may even be more powerful than more traditional medical interventions, such as prescriptions and physical therapy.

Here are a few studies that show how Mozart may trump medicine:

  • Singing helps the stroke-stricken to speak sooner: A study conducted on a group of Finnish stroke sufferers found that listening to their favorite tunes while recovering helped them regain their ability to recognize words and communicate. When compared to stroke sufferers who listened to audiobooks or nothing at all, those that listened to music for a few hours a day experienced a much faster recovery of their verbal skills. The music listeners were also less likely to be depressed and confused, two common post-stroke side effects.
  • Pulsing pitches set pace for people with Parkinson's: Numerous studies have indicated that music therapy can allow people with Parkinson's to regain some of their overall functioning. In certain cases, music may even prove more effective at helping a Parkinson's sufferer move better than traditional physical therapy techniques, according to an Italian study published in, "Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine." Music therapy also upped the quality of life and overall feelings of happiness reported by those dealing with the disease.
  • Classical compositions have calming cardiovascular effects: German researchers discovered that people recovering from open-heart surgery had lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, after listening to classical music. Relaxing refrains also helped patients calm down pre-surgery. In some cases, listening to music before an operation was more effective in getting a person to relax than commonly-prescribed anti-anxiety medications.

Managing grief with melodic intervention

Music therapists also work with hospice care providers to assist a dying senior and their loved ones as they go through the grieving process.

Depending on the unique needs and wishes of the elder and their family, a music therapist can do things such as help create a compilation CD of songs that have special meaning to the dying person to give as a legacy gift after they have passed, composing a song about the person's life, and selecting and playing particular melodies meant to ease their physical and emotional pain as they transition out of this life.

Government reimbursement for music therapy

Professional music therapy services may be covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, if certain requirements are met.

Music therapy is considered to be a form of "Activity Therapy" under Medicare and must be formally prescribed by a physician. A treatment plan must be drawn up and improvement in functioning must be proven after a certain amount of time.

Guidelines for Medicaid coverage vary by state and may or may not be covered for seniors.

Harnessing the healing power of harmony at home

You don't have to be formally trained to help your loved one reap the holistic healing benefits of music.

Snyder-Cowan offers some suggestions for how caregivers and their loved ones can bond over song from the comfort of their home:

  • Make your own music: If you or your loved one had a passion for playing a particular instrument, don't hesitate to dust off the old six-string and strum out a few chords. "Live music has its own set of special rewards," says Snyder-Cowan.
  • Travel to another time or place: Music and memory are intimately intertwined. To help your loved one get in touch with their past, try playing music that was popular when they were in their 20s and 30s.
  • Match tempo to temper: No one genre of music is more therapeutic than another. According to Snyder-Cowan, it's all about personal preference. Pick songs that you and your loved one enjoy listening to. Keeping in mind the principal of entrainment, try to synchronize the songs to the mood you're trying to invoke.
  • Highlight hobbies: For example, your loved one may not be able to visit the opera like they used to, but that doesn't mean they have to forgo their favorite arias. You can help bring the opera to them by purchasing or downloading some of their favorite performances and playing them.

Just for you: In need of some additional lyrical inspiration to get you through the day? Check out these 13 Theme Songs for Family Caregivers .

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Music, at any age is a soul salve...it resonates within us and we react in a way to it that is almost undescribable, as if it is a natural healing gift. Play on!
My mom loves listening to bluegrass gospel music so I just look up videos on youtube and let her listen to her heart's content.
I sing with a small group that goes out to care facilites with old-time gospel music--hymns, country, spirituals-and we get great responses. One 96-yr-old lady thanked us for "giving me an hour of my life back." We notice that both the residents and the staff appreciate it, and we've been told that some people who haven't responded to anything do perk up with the music. We get asked back to most of the places we go, one of which is a facility for extremely disabled children. We also occasionally visit homebound seniors, and do requests. There is almost always at least one person there that sings along with us, which we encourage. We have several vocalists, one with a guitar, and one or two flute and woodwind players. We love doing it, and get a lot of appreciative responses.