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7 Ways to Use Music at Home with Your Aging Loved One

If you and your loved one enjoy music, but you’re unsure how to utilize it as a meaningful activity at home, we've got some ideas for you! Music is a wonderful tool for connection and engagement. Think of it like a vitamin—a little bit everyday does wonders to nourish the heart, body, mind and soul. Music can be a daily activity for you and your loved one.

Sing – Even if you don’t describe yourself as a “singer,” we each have a voice and can use it to sing. Did you know the activity of singing has a ton of benefits? In many ways, singing is similar to exercise. It’s an aerobic activity, so it gets more oxygen into the blood leading to better circulation which can cause improved mood. Singing causes the release of endorphins, which give us that wonderful “lifted” feeling often resulting in stress relief. Also, because singing requires deep breathing, a natural result is often reduced anxiety.

It's as simple as turning on a song and singing along. Take advantage of free or low-cost resources like YouTube or Spotify. Create a playlist of you and your loved one’s favorite tunes to sing together. Learn the lyrics of a few songs together so you can sing a cappella when you can’t conveniently turn on music. Another more formal way to regularly sing would be for you and your loved one to participate in a choir together, take voice lessons, or receive music therapy services.

Play – Do you or your loved one own any musical instruments? Pull them out and try playing. Don’t worry about sounding good or playing correctly. You don’t necessarily need to know how to play. Start by exploring the instrument and see what sounds you can make.

Instrument play is fun and can provide opportunities for playfulness and self-expression as well as physical movement. You can play musical instruments alone or with accompaniment music. Small percussion instruments like maracas are generally easy to pick up and play without any previous knowledge or experience. Just turn on some music, have fun and jam out with your instruments.

Some of our favorite and older-adult friendly instruments to use include maracas, tambourines, jingle bells, eggs shakers and paddle drums (check out WestMusic.com for quality instruments at reasonable prices). For a couple of more unique instrument options, check out an Easycussion pentatonic xylophone, Suzuki QChord, or an ocean drum.

Dance – Music is a natural motivator for the physical body. Most people can easily pick up the rhythm of a song by tapping their toes or bobbing their head along to the beat. Sometimes we do this without even thinking! Dance and movement are the body’s natural response to rhythm. So, turn on some music and dance!

Choosing songs that are familiar or well-known can be helpful but don’t shy away from exploring new-to-you and different types of music. You never know what new songs or styles you’ll discover. To get you thinking here are some genres of music you could dance to: big band, jazz, rock’n’roll, folk, bluegrass, country/western, classical, rhythm and blues, gospel, pop, Broadway showtunes, soul, funk, disco…to name a few!

Don’t think that formal dances like the waltz, tango or cha-cha-cha are the only way to move your body to music though. Try making up your own moves, or embracing and swaying to the music together, or facing each other and doing seated movement to music. Try stretching, exercising, or simply doing rhythmic body percussion like clapping, snapping, patting, stomping, kicking, tapping, marching, shaking, waving, etc. Get creative!

Listen and Reminisce – Listening to music can be an enjoyable activity all on its own. Find a playlist you and your loved one enjoy, or create your own. Listening to music is an excellent activity for relaxation or brain stimulation. It can be a passive, receptive experience by simply listening. Or, it can be an active, engaging experience by discussing the lyrics and various elements of the music, such as the sound, feel, different instruments involved, etc. There is no right or wrong way to listen to music. Do what feels best and what you enjoy most.

Listening to music also function as a great accompaniment to other activities such as cleaning, cooking, running errands or doing an art project. One word of caution: beware of over-stimulation using music in this way. Many activities require a great amount of focus, and some types of music can actually lead to the brain having too much to process at once. Try to match the musical energy to the energy level of the activity. Instrumental (or music without lyrics) can work well for times when you and your loved one will need to talk during the activity.

Music can also be an amazing catalyst for reminiscence. To start off, choose songs associated with positive, meaningful memories. Observe your loved one as you listen together and consider asking a couple questions about the song afterwards. For more info and practical tools, I recommend the book Music, Memory, and Meaning written by a few of my music therapist colleagues!

Relax – Music can be a wonderful tool for relaxation. We all find different types of music calming for us, and the music we find relaxing can change throughout our lives. It’s important for you to consider and choose music that’s calming for both you and your loved one.

We use music as a structured space for deep breathing, gentle stretching, guided relaxation, and meditation. There are different techniques for each of these; however, don’t get bogged down in the how-to. Begin by experimenting to see what it’s like using music to assist in relaxation, and then go from there. If you’re at a loss as to what kind of music to play for times of intentional relaxation, try looking up a playlist of the type of music spas use during treatments such as massage therapy. Nature sounds or ambient music can work beautifully to calm mind and body.

Write a song – Songwriting is typically a multi-step process involving several layers: choosing a song structure, writing lyrics, composing a melody, and creating harmony or accompaniment. However, you don’t need to be a musician to write a song, so don’t be intimidated by this activity. Creating a song can be a fun, simple activity for anyone. For example, try improvising a short melody to hum, or writing some lyrics, or taking a preexisting song and replacing the words with your own (known as a song parody).

Don’t worry about music theory, song structure, chord progressions or any other formalities with songwriting. Just allow your creative juices to flow! Be sure to record your song in some way, whether by writing it down or recording a quick voice memo of it. You can of course write a formal full-length song with your loved one. This could take place over the span of a few hours or over the course of a few weeks or months as an ongoing project. If one of both of you plays an instrument, that will help in creating the melody and/or chords.

Record – This is a simple activity for you and your loved one. It’s a reminder to capture those moments of making music together! You could use the voice memo app on your phone, or your phone’s camera to record a video, or write down a special moment in a notebook. To take it a step further, share it with friends and family. They will appreciate it, and you will be grateful for capturing those special, memorable moments.

A Few Tips – Sometimes we just need to be given permission to try something new. So, I hereby grant you full permission to make music! Additionally, here are a few tips that might further help you push through any initial discomfort or unfamiliarity:

  • Keep it simple – don’t feel like it needs to be a performance.
  • Don’t be self-conscious.
  • Don’t shy away from doing something simply because you’ve never done it before.
  • Something is always worth trying. You never know what you might discover or the positive outcome that may result, so don’t write it off before you even give it a try.
  • Have fun!

Music is powerful and has so many incredible benefits. It can create connections and spark joy. Music is fun and engaging. It’s a natural motivator for the mind and body. Music really makes a difference!

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