Author Hans Christian Andersen said, “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Board-certified music therapist Alison Deran sees this come to life every day as she presents music as a form of learning, memory-making, reminiscing and conversation with older adults.
“Sometimes, we don’t have the words to describe what we are feeling, but we can relate to a song that describes how we feel,” says Deran, the internship and student coordinator for the center of music therapy at The Music Settlement.
This has been true especially during the pandemic, when no words can quite describe the anxiety, isolation, confusion and economic stress many are processing. “It gives them an opportunity to share their feelings and emotions that they can’t express in other ways,” says Vanessa Jackson, the senior wellness coordinator at the May Dugan Center in Ohio City.
One of the senior programs at the center includes music therapy from The Music Settlement and Jackson notes that one woman “relies on music heavily” to share parts of her life by selecting songs that speak to that period of time.
“The pandemic has also been very isolating for our seniors, so having this outlet and focusing on something other than all of the negative news that was available to them last year really gives them an opportunity to be in a different place emotionally,” Jackson says.
The social aspects are also a benefit. “They find others in the group that enjoy the same music so there is a point of connection,” Jackson says. “Music therapy can reach seniors when nothing else might reach them.”
That’s because there is a biomedical connection, Deran explains. “Research shows that music increases the connections that happen in our brain and allows that to happen in a different format than verbal processing,” she says. “It’s like GPS. If you are experiencing a memory challenge, maybe with early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s, that struggle to come up with words is very real and very frustrating. Music can act like a GPS because it helps the brain fire into different routes so you can communicate.”
Also, music releases a happy shot of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. “Music acts as a motivator,” Deran says. “Those naturally produced chemicals can help with life skills that become harder as we get older.”
Music therapy can be delivered in a number of different formats. Deran conducts group music experiences with singing or playing instruments like egg shakers, maracas and drums. “We get a rhythm going,” she says. “And, group singing increases group cohesion and brings people together.”
Music history helps older adults dig into the past to share memories and keep their thinking sharp. “We might look at singers like Nat King Cole or Judy Garland and talk about what was going on in the singers’ lives, prompting questions to really make people think,” she says.
The therapy offers learning opportunities.
“When we are young, we teach songs to help with learning the ABCs and basic life skills,” Deran says. “Music is a really big part of our lives, so it makes sense that it would continue into adulthood.”
The aha moments music inspires is evident in the eyes of seniors who are exposed to the therapy, Deran says.
“You see their body come from this state of tension or confusion into relaxation,” she adds. “Their shoulders are not so tight. Their voice might become more clear because their vocal chords are more relaxed.”