by Lois J. McCloskey
The power of music has been known — yet not fully understood — to humans in all times and in all cultures. Music is a means of expression, music connects emotions — hope, regret, love — and our stories. As a form of communication, music connects us with other human beings, our inner spirits, and our history in a way that words alone cannot. Music is the human language that bridges cultures, genders, and generations.
The power of music grows as we age. To the elderly, music can be a vehicle of reminiscence, such as when an old song brings back the vivid memory of an experience in the distant past — a memory resplendent with not only the story, but the senses and the mood. Our memories are imprinted with music. Music helps us all to define our lives; songs symbolize an era of our life, bring us together in community, and for some become a form of prayer. As one elder said, “Music is emotion from another time. It shapes our personal landscape.”
When words alone make little sense, music becomes an effective means of communication. Aging and disease can leave the body with physical and cognitive disabilities which make expression difficult. Elders with memory loss brought on by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease often lose the ability to verbalize their thoughts and feelings and to understand the messages spoken to them. Awareness for these elders moves to a different, more intuitive plane where tone of voice and body language speak more loudly. Music speaks to them and for them, and helps them bring clarity to their thoughts and experience. For them, the emotions and spirit that music conveys transcend the spoken word. In some cases, these individuals no longer speak, but they sing!
During a hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, the well-known neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, M.D. testified that “many elderly patients with strokes are aphasic, they have lost some of their ability to articulate or use words; but the words that are lost may come back with singing...” Musician/singer/actor Theodore Bikel stated, “Human beings are in need of music — not as frill and luxury but as a basic necessity.”
Music and memory are long-time companions who are well suited to one another. Using music as a catalyst, reminiscing can promote well-being and self-esteem, paving the way toward good spiritual and mental health.
Music may be a helpful tool and beneficial for a person with memory loss, but there are definite things to keep in mind:
• Music must be relevant to the person you are working with, i.e. they may have sung in a church choir, so hymns may be music they relate to. Musical tastes are individual and vary. Find out what a person likes or has listened to in the past.
• Not all people are group participants. People with memory loss may begin to become more isolated and do not wish to socialize or to be a part of a group.
• Music programs need to be individual as well as group functions.
• Avoid overstimulation. Sometimes people can become agitated by music that is too fast or too loud. Generally, slower tempos and more melodic music works better (i.e. Strauss waltzes).
• Don’t have music on continuously. Have periods of quiet.
• Music may be incorporated into the daily routine.
– For bathing: Choosing music that’s relaxing and something the individual enjoys may make bathing a more enjoyable experience.
– Before meals: Turn music down or off during meals, because it may direct the person’s attention away from eating.
– Massage: Putting quiet music on and giving a hand massage is noninvasive and nonthreatening, and is also relaxing.
• Exercise to music.
• Reminiscing with music may tap into long-term memory.
• Have a portable tape or CD player in the person’s room, so when they lie down for rest in the day, or sleep at night, they have access to some relaxing music.
• Use of various instruments such as a portable electronic keyboard, autoharp, or guitar may be used to engage people by making them strum, touch, or make sounds on various instruments.
• Using the human voice and singing to people informally while they are dressing or performing other such activities of daily living may be helpful to motivate or to distract.
• Music is the most social of the arts, and a
person doesn’t have to
be particularly musical to participate. A person in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease may still respond to music. It is a valuable tool to use when people are dying, and may be beneficial in assisting with pain management by helping to foster relaxation.
It has been said that “music is the universal language.” In order to learn the “language,” one must use imagination and creativity. The aforementioned are suggestions and ideas which may be tailored to fit individual situations.
A CD of Lois J.
McCloskey’s music is included in the Caregiver’s
Support Kit® for your enjoyment and relaxation.
Ms. McCloskey has sung to and with the elderly as a geriatric music consultant, and has experienced the power of music in their lives. She is available for consultations, workshops, and presentations. For more information, contact: Lois J. McCloskey, c/o Molly Dog Music, 6702 Faunterloy Way, SW, Seattle, WA 98136, telephone: 206-932-7007.