A Game Changer: Using Music in Caregiving

August 25, 2017

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I have enjoyed music for as long as I can remember. My mother taught me to play the piano and I went on to earn a master’s degree in music. But it is only lately that I have fully begun to appreciate the therapeutic value of music, both for the caregiver and for the care-receiver.

As caregivers we often have so many tasks calling our name that it is easy to become overwhelmed. But bringing music into your home can yield benefits far beyond the minimal time spent initiating it.

Physical Benefits

Music helps with physical coordination. As my mother-in-law’s sense of balance deteriorated, I began walking with her, especially when she first got up in the morning, placing my hands on her waist as I walked behind. One day, on impulse, I started whistling “The Bunny Hop.” She immediately responded to the upbeat music, whistling with me (in tune!), picking up her feet instead of shuffling. She even gave an occasional kick in time with the music. I now whistle or sing whenever we are moving throughout the house to encourage her to move along joyfully.

Music may improve speech or cognitive awareness in dementia patients. One film documents how non-communicative late-stage Alzheimer’s patients responded to music personalized to their tastes by singing along, sometimes after years of silence.1

Emotional Benefits

Martin Luther wrote:

“Music is a fair and glorious gift of God. I wish to see all arts, principally music, in the service of Him who gave and created them. I would not for all the world forego my humble share of music. Singers are never sorrowful, but are merry, and smile through their troubles in song. Music makes people kinder, gentler, more staid and reasonable. I am strongly persuaded that after theology there is no art that can be placed on a level with music; for besides theology music is the only art capable of affording peace and joy of the heart.”

Music stimulates the mind. Music helps to lower depression and decrease loneliness.2 Dr. Barry Bittman states, “Playing music reduces stress and has been shown to reverse the body's response to stress at the DNA-level.”

My mother-in-law, who is in middle stage Alzheimer’s, often sings to her animatronic cat. This cat has brought her a sense of purpose (“taking care of my baby”) and emotional connection (the cat doesn’t expect her to respond verbally, and gets more kisses and hugs in a day than most children do in a week.)3 Mom may hum “The Star-Spangle Banner” and follow it with “Silent Night.” Regardless of her song choice, it brings joy to both of us when she sings.

Spiritual Benefits

The Psalms are full of admonitions to sing to the Lord:

  • Psalm 92:1: “It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High.”
  • Psalm 98:4: “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.”
  • Ephesians 5:19: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”

Martin Luther stated:

“I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given mankind by God...Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in this world...This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself of the fact that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.”

Singing hymns and Scripture choruses will help each of you to hide God’s word in your hearts. They will refresh and encourage both of you as you reflect on the great truths and theology in hymns of the past.4 You will be blessed by the rich theological insights in these classics.

How to Include Music in Your Caregiving

You don’t have to be a musician to bring music into your life as a caregiver. Anyone can enjoy music; even the person who can’t sing well can make a joyful noise.5

Music is therapeutic for both of you. This is not just something else to add to your busy day, but a gift to make your day go more smoothly, too. Here are some ways to bring music into your day:

  • Make up new, silly words to old folk songs.
  • Move or dance to the music of her generation. It is good for her circulation and recalls happy memories of her youth. Hearing this music will make your routine tasks go faster, too.
  • If she is grumpy, turn on a CD of music you know she will enjoy. It may be the upbeat Big Band sounds of Glenn Miller or reflective hymns sung by a country singer. Stay out of her way and let the music do its work in “soothing the savage beast.”6
  • Purchase an easy-to-use music box or radio that she can operate herself.7
  • Our sons sang regularly at local nursing homes when they were growing up. They wore costumes relevant to the current holiday and sometimes did motions while they sang. The combination of children plus music plus prayer worked wonders for the residents. Many who could no longer carry on a conversation sang along with the boys on the old favorites and hymns. Many who were agitated when the staff wheeled them into the activity room were calm after the first couple of songs. Perhaps your grandchildren or someone else’s children would enjoy developing a similar ministry for your loved one and others.
  • One music therapist helped healthy older people develop musical autobiographies. She wrote, “We began with the question ‘What is a song that represents a part of you?’ From there we looked at music connected to different life stages and events, i.e. childhood, school, sports, dating, marriage, children, loss. As one person brought out a song important to them, another would find a related memory and still more songs. This domino effect helped us create individual lists of music [that] represented the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of the group. As the world is realizing the power of familiar music in memory care, creating these lists of music can be helpful in communicating with your loved ones and documenting the important moments of your life in an easy and accessible way.”8

Don’t neglect the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of including music in your loved one’s daily life—you will be blessed, too.

© 2017 by Marcia K. Washburn. Marcia writes from her home in Colorado. Through the years, she has cared for four adult relatives in her home, and presently cares for her mother-in-law who has Alzheimer Disease. Marcia is the Assistant Director of Christian Family Eldercare. Her book, Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers, is available at ChristianFamilyEldercare.org.

1. Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory. Film by Michael Rossato-Bennett.

2. American Music Teacher Magazine, December/January 2008-2009

3. Animatronic cats and dogs are available at https://joyforall.hasbro.com/en-us.

4. If you are not familiar with the traditional hymns your loved one grew up with, write to info@ChristianFamilyEldercare.org for a free list along with internet links.

5. Psalm 100:1

6. You can find inexpensive collections of hymns and older popular music online. Search for “Favorite Hymns” or “Music of the 1950s,” for example.

7. http://store.best-alzheimers-products.com/catalogsearch/result/?q=radio

8. Meghan MacMillan http://room217.ca/music-care-blog/620-exploring-music-and-wellness-lives-elders (05/03/2016)

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August 25, 2017 by Marcia Washburn

  • Visiting & Serving Seniors
  • Caring for Parents and Relatives
  • Home-based Elder Care in a Family Economy
  • Church and Diaconate Eldercare