Exploring the Benefits of Musical Engagement for Older Adults

When Cassie moved into her apartment at a continuum-of-care community, she was concerned about making friends and fitting in. A retired elementary school music teacher, Cassie loved being with her students and colleagues, but felt less at ease making new friends and exploring new places and situations. And everything seemed harder since her husband, Tom, passed away last year.

One evening a few weeks after moving in, Cassie was walking back to her apartment from the library where she had picked up some new reading material. As she entered the hallway that led past the Community Room, Cassie stopped in her tracks: music! She heard the delightful sounds of a piano accompanying an enthusiastic group of singers.

Cassie was flooded with emotions. She hadn’t touched a piano since Tom died. And she knew her new community had a piano—her children had made sure of that when they looked into communities together.  Cassie couldn’t help but peek into the Community Room. Jan, a woman whose apartment was near hers, was banging out “Lean On Me” on the piano, surrounded by a crowd of raucous singers who seemed to know every word. Cassie hadn’t known that Jan played the piano, and was glad to know that another pianist lived so near.

When the song ended with Jan zipping up the keyboard in a long glissando, Cassie turned to leave, but one of the ladies ran over to invite her to join in. “You’ve just got to sing with us,” said Sue. “The guys are way too loud—we need another gal! Plus, added Sue, they were having Beatles Night on Thursday and a Tribute to Frank Sinatra the following week! How could Cassie refuse?

Not only did Cassie join in, but she started practicing with Jan, working on duets and exploring new music for the sing-alongs. Cassie also started taking walks with Jan’s Walk and Talk Club, and met another retired music teacher, Sarah, with whom she had lunch on Friday.

The benefits of listening to music and playing a musical instrument have been known for years, but more recently, ongoing research is showing the benefits of singing. Not only does singing elevate our mood, but it also has a host of benefits for our bodies:

  • Increased immune response
  • Expanded lung capacity
  • Brings more oxygen to the brain and other organs
  • Reduces stress and decreases blood pressure
  • Increases tolerance to pain
  • Enhances memory and triggers pleasant memories
  • Helps those experiencing cognitive decline/dementia

According to the American Music Therapy Association, using music for therapeutic purposes dates back to the late 1700s and was developed into a field of study in the 1800s. Following World Wars I and II, travelling musicians would help soothe the spirits of wounded troops. Even though music had been used in a healing manner for centuries, its use had not been recognized professionally until the 20th century. Singing, specifically, is considered an active intervention, and is part of expressive music therapy, meaning it allows for active participation in the creation of music.

Cassie, Jan, and Sarah were definitely not thinking about the benefits of active intervention music therapy, increased lung capacity, or blood pressure reduction as they belted out “My Way” with their buddies. They were simply living in the moment, enjoying being together and singing out loud!

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