Learning an instrument benefits seniors with memory loss


Everyone’s favorite pianist, Billy Joel, once said, “I think music itself is healing. It is an explosive expression of humanity. It is something that affects us all. Regardless of our culture, everyone loves music.

The truth of these words remains even when our memories begin to fail us. Many studies have shown the ability of music to penetrate deep into the brain to help people remember songs when they can’t remember people or places. Non-verbal patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s have been known to sing along when they hear their favorite song, even when they can’t carry on a conversation.

Many studies have shown the ability of music to penetrate deep into the brain to help people remember songs when they can’t remember people or places.

But the benefit doesn’t stop with listening: while music therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, playing music also offers benefits beyond simply creating a calming atmosphere for older people with memory problems.

Music works the brain

Music is such an important part of our lives, and all that music is good for the brain. Listening to or playing music uses six different parts of the brain, forcing the brain to make connections – and create new ones – between different areas.

Image courtesy of Goodwin Living

“When you learn a new instrument, some people like to compare it to learning a new language, especially if you’re learning to read music,” said Abigail Hanlon, music therapist for Goodwin Living, an elderly care company. in Virginia. “Learning a new instrument can create new neural pathways in your brain between different regions. This can be very important, especially if you are someone who has experienced a loss of cognition.

When a part of the brain is damaged, the brain must compensate for this damaged area. Playing music accesses different parts of the brain at the same time, making it more likely that those with memory deficits can remember a song. This is why playing an instrument can be so good for seniors in memory care.

“They might not remember your name, but they can sit down and play any song they’ve learned in their lifetime,” Hanlon says. “It’s special for music.”

Music creates community

Listening to music provides benefits for those with memory issues, but playing music can create a sense of community that goes beyond just passive listening.

“It can just be a lot of fun playing an instrument, especially with other people,” said music therapist Jake Beck, owner of Upbeat Music Therapy Services, a Washington-based music therapy company. “One measure we use is ‘quality of life’, and having fun can tick that box. Playing music is also a very social activity and provides a motivation to do so that is absent in some other gatherings or activities.

Hanlon tells the story of a gentleman from his school who played saxophone when he was in college. During the pandemic, he decided to take it back.

“He sits in his hallway at 2 p.m. and people come out into the hallway and socialize,” she said.

Getting seniors to play music together is also important, regardless of their talent level.

“Playing an instrument in a band does wonders for socialization,” she said. “You not only perceive what you are doing, but also what others are doing. The more sociable you are, the more likely you are to maintain your cognition.

Music doesn’t care how old you are

When caring for someone with memory issues, it can be easy to think the time for learning new things has passed, but that doesn’t apply to music, Hanlon said.

“For music therapy groups, we have instruments at every session,” she said. “I have a big box of percussion instruments. If they can learn to play an instrument right away, they’re more likely to come back. Residents are more likely to participate when instruments are involved.

And older people don’t need to be musically talented to benefit from playing an instrument.

“You can pick up any instrument and be terrible, but if it’s something you love, it’s just as beneficial as someone who’s got a lot of talent,” Hanlon says.

The benefits of learning to play an instrument aren’t just limited to the person playing.

“People with and without dementia benefit from socialization, engagement, quality of life, and most importantly, therapeutic reminiscence,” Beck said. “I’ve seen this many times, like with people unable to speak who suddenly sing the lyrics to favorite songs from their childhood, or with a participant who is immediately engaged and makes meaningful eye contact and taps their feet. The Family and friends also benefit from being aware of their loved one’s music-related memories and are able to socialize and engage with them where previously difficult.

Music is easy to add to your senior’s life

If you want to help your loved one add more music to their life, you have many options. If you’re caring for a senior at home, check out music programs for seniors in your community where instrument playing is included, or check with a local music store for lessons. They may even have someone who can come to your home to teach.

Hanlon and Beck suggest looking for programs led by a music therapist.

“There’s a distinction between just listening to music, even if it’s live, and having ‘music therapy,'” Beck said. “The former is certainly beneficial and can be therapeutic, but the latter offers trained professionals whose job and goal is to maximize the engagement and enjoyment of their clients.”

For seniors in a memory care facility, check with the facility’s activities director to see if they offer music therapy programs. If they don’t, encourage them to explore local options. Many music therapists offer programs designed for memory care facilities.

If there are no options in your area, simply encouraging your senior to learn an instrument through video instruction can also provide benefits. You can even plan to learn with them, which also makes it a social event.

There’s no doubt that your eldest doesn’t have to be the pianist (or the wife) to benefit from learning an instrument. They can enjoy the brain health benefits and improved quality of life that come with actively playing music, regardless of their skill level.


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