A noted composer once said that music opens up the window to the soul. But for independently living seniors, being able to keep music in their lives can benefit the mind as well.
The links between musical training and improved brain aptitude are already well documented. Children and young adults who practice music, whether they are part of a school orchestra, a chorus or even a garage band, demonstrably experience elevated levels of attention and memory compared with before they began.
Their training is shown to improve hearing and in some instances, motor skills. Meanwhile, studies in recent years suggest that simply listening to music can provide a variety of health benefits — emotional, psychological and even physical — in the life of an older person who lives alone.
For seniors, music can provide a powerful and easily recognized link to the past. Listening to songs one heard long ago often helps to bring back dormant memories from his or her younger years. Such stimuli can also help seniors contextualize their memories.
Last year Michael Rossato-Bennett’s award-winning documentary “Alive Inside” captured the full extent to which music can be used to polish up elderly minds. The great focus of the film is the dramatic rejuvenating effect that listening to their old favorite songs has on the group of elderly nursing home residents, many of whom are suffering from dementia.
The influence of music is visible from the film’s opening scene, when a 90-year-old woman is brought back into her past by listening to songs from her younger years. After initially apologizing to the camera for how little of her earlier life she is able to remember, she is able to speak clearly and passionately about memories from her youth with the aid of music.
And while the film’s subjects took great delight in simply being able to recall episodes from earlier years, there were many other conveniences that came from bringing back old memories. In talking about their past, they were able to connect with other nursing home residents and staff members, often using the specific songs as openings for the conversation.
In addition to providing emotional comfort, the music provided a gateway to interacting meaningfully with others and fostered the social connectivity that experts say is vital to staying happy, especially in old age. These are the types of benefits that can help all seniors, whether they are continuing-care residents or living independently at home, to maintain the positive feelings of self-worth that everyone needs to lead a healthy and rewarding life.
If you have a senior resident whose spirit you’d like to lift, try starting a discussion about music. With the advent of the digital age, the rise of audio computer applications and the growing popularity of Internet radio, it has never been easier to connect residents to their favorite tunes. Engaging residents with music from their earlier life can provide them with more than just pleasant memories of the past — it can also open the door for powerful connections in the present.