How music therapy can benefit seniors

It's common knowledge that music can help people of all ages not only get through tough times, but also celebrate the good ones. Though hospitals and care facilities have long been aware of the therapeutic value of music for seniors, the practice continues to gain in both popularity and scientific backing.

The science of song
One of the most studied benefits of music therapy is its ability to facilitate learning. Practicing an instrument can increase brain plasticity*, or the brain's ability to adapt to new connections, in both the long and short term, according to a Montreal Neurological Institute study. As decreasing brain plasticity is a common aspect of aging, studying music can be a good way for seniors to stay sharp.

Researchers from a number of American universities also found that just listening to music can have measurable mental health advantages. A study published in The Gerontologist finds that listening to gospel music* can reduce levels of anxiety and stress among seniors. Participants who listened to the music also reported higher self-esteem and an increased sense of being in control of their lives. Though the songs involved in the study were spiritual in nature, the positive effects they imparted were observed in both religious and non-religious seniors.

Music and memory
These and other related findings have helped to bring music therapy to more people and retirement communities. For example, residents at the Manitowoc Health and Rehabilitation Center in Wisconsin are currently benefiting from the Wisconsin Music and Memory Initiative, a music therapy program for people with dementia, in a number of ways. After being given music players, seniors at the center stock them with their favourite songs. Because memory problems often affect short-term memory storage more than long-term recall, even people with severe dementia were able to connect with music they had enjoyed before their memory had begun to decline. Staff members report that many residents are much calmer and happier as a result of the music therapy.

An active role
Another major advantage to music therapy is that it lends itself easily to socialization. Turning listening to music into a group activity is as easy as assembling people and agreeing on a song to enjoy. Even more opportunities for socialization emerge when the therapy consists of actually playing instruments. Seniors who aren't already musicians may need instruction, and the relationship between instructor and pupil can be fulfilling for both parties. Once seniors are trained, they can continue to share their skills by playing together at their senior living residence, allowing them an active role in both their own health and that of those around them!

To learn about some of the active living and social engagement programs offered at Chartwell, including their music-inspired Rhythm N' Moves exercise class, click here.

*The following sources provide references for this blog, in order of appearance:

  1. Neuron. "Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure" (2012), Online:
  2. ScienceDaily. "Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health"(2014) Online: