Why Music Has Health Benefits for Seniors

How to incorporate music into your activities

Senior man listening to music with headphones and smiling
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

For every Baby Boomer who knows what comes next after “Here we come, walkin’ down the street…,” there's a member of the World War II generation to whom “I’ll Be Seeing You” reminds him or her of empty days and nights waiting for a loved one. The power of music and what it does to bring back memories is undeniable. Here's some of the science and the implication for activity directors, as well as how to incorporate music into your activities.

Music and Memory

Music has the unmistakable power to fire up the brain’s recall abilities. It makes us feel emotions from certain times in our lives and brings back memories almost as if we were reliving them.

Here's the science behind why this happens: When you hear a catchy song, your brain neurons light up. Later, when you hear the same song again, those original memory patterns are automatically strengthened. The more often you hear it, the more permanent the connections between the neurons in the pattern become.

Health Benefits of Music

National studies have proven that seniors involved in the arts improve physically and mentally. One recent study that was done on people with dementia in nursing homes showed that using music personalized to each person decreased the number of antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs they needed to be on, as well as reduced behavior issues.

Music has the potential to reduce anxiety by calming neuron activity in the brain.

It can reduce symptoms of depression as well by helping to remind people of the good times in their lives. Music decreases stress and boosts circulation, dropping heart rates and breathing rates in studies. Additionally, studies have shown that music can decrease pain and help improve sleep quality.

How to Bring Music Into Your Activities

When selecting music for residents, it's critical that you remember that while we learn new songs all our lives, the music with the strongest memory connections includes songs we loved in our teens and twenties and songs we heard our parents sing or play as we were growing up. Here are some ideas for incorporating music into your activities:

  • Try playing a playlist of songs your residents personally choose during your group activities, especially when they involve art.
  • Make individual playlists to put on Mp3 players or iPods that residents can carry with them throughout the day.
  • Find a local musician who knows how to play oldies and let the residents request songs.
  • Dedicate a group activity to discussing each person's favorite song and why it's his or her favorite, as well as what memories it brings back.
  • Hold a jukebox night or afternoon in which you play only songs residents request.
  • If any of the residents play an instrument or sing, encourage them to perform for the others.

Sources:

Brown University. Personalized Music May Help Nursing Home Residents With Dementia. Published May 10, 2017.

Jenkins T. Why Does Music Evoke Memories? BBC. Published October 21, 2014.

Stuckey HL, Nobel J. The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current LiteratureAmerican Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(2):254-263. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497.