Music Therapy for Older Adults
Updated: Oct 8
On June 30th, I brought in the topic of music therapy for older adults to Harmonic Changes’ Open Studio series. Since I have had the opportunity to work with older adults both in person and via telehealth in my clinical experience thus far, I compared the similarities and differences in facilitation for this population in my presentation. I also discussed where music therapists often see older adult clients in the community and general considerations for working with this population.
My presentation covered five potential interventions that music therapists may use with older adults. These interventions can all be done in both modalities, but there are some differences that are important to note!
1. Instrument Improvisation
Playing instruments can be beneficial for exercising gross & fine motor skills, practicing the various levels of attention, and maintaining short-term memory. Older adults can play instruments along with preferred songs from their young adulthood! When preparing this intervention in an in-person setting, the music therapist will typically provide instruments to the clients (unless it is contraindicated for some reason). However, with telehealth, the music therapist may need to coordinate with the client and their caregivers to acquire or create instruments.
2. Music and Movement
Like instrument play, music and movement interventions can also address motor skills and attention. In both settings, safety is paramount, and the client should move in a way that is safe for them and that allows them to be supported in their movement. An important consideration with telehealth is that the client might not be able to see the music therapist’s lower body. The music therapist should tilt the camera to be able to model lower extremity movements for the client.
Singing can benefit oral motor skills, maintain use of the voice, and promote memory and reminiscence if the songs come from a certain era of the client’s life. Group singing can also promote socialization and bonding between the members of the group who are singing! Unfortunately, for telehealth groups involving singing, it is currently not possible for the group members to sing and hear each other in rhythm due to timing delays with the technology. When leading a group of singers, the music therapist should mute the clients to give a less chaotic experience. Everyone can still see each other singing even if they can’t hear each other!
4. Receptive Music Listening
Listening to music can give clients an opportunity to express themselves and their emotions through their choices, promote memory and reminiscence similar to singing interventions, and also allow for practicing attention. This intervention is quite adaptable to telehealth. With platforms like Zoom, the music therapist can easily share recorded music with clients during sessions. For both in-person and telehealth sessions, to ease the transition between listening and silence, it can be helpful to fade the music with a slider when using recorded music.
Writing songs can maintain executive functioning skills through decision making, can also provide an outlet for emotional expression, and can give clients and their families a way to connect through hearing the thoughts and feelings of their loved one. Songs can be written spontaneously based on the client’s needs in the moment, or the music therapist and client can work together to create an original or fill-in-the-blank style song. With telehealth, the music therapist can share their screen while writing down lyrics with the client to allow them to follow along with the songwriting process.