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Senior | Hospice Care

elderly man listening to guitar

The Older Americans Act of 1992 defined music therapy as “the use of musical or rhythmic interventions specifically selected by a music therapist to accomplish the restoration, maintenance, or improvement of social or emotional functioning, mental processing, or physical health of an older individual.” Music can boost one’s mood and bring comfort in times of sadness, evoking feelings of positivity and happiness.


For seniors in the mid- to later stages of dementia, music has been identified as a proven means to help recall memories and feelings from the past. This is due to the fact that music takes little to no cognitive processing; even those in the late stages of the disease are still able to engage with familiar music, especially singing or rhythmic playing.

Some of the main benefits of music therapy for seniors include an impact on:

  • Cognitive Skills: Music therapy has a positive effect on overall thought processing and memory retention. In fact, in those with dementia, music from childhood or the young adult years has proved effective in obtaining a positive response and increased involvement in the outside world. This is because many people associate music with past events, so hearing just one song can evoke a memory of a time long since passed.

  • Physical Skills: Generally speaking, with music comes movement. Even if an individual is no longer mobile, music inspires movement. Whether through dancing, toe tapping, clapping, or head bobbing, getting the blood flowing again can promote coordination and improve endurance.

  • Communication Skills: Music therapy for dementia sufferers can give them a voice again. Many individuals are able to speak clearer, answer questions and make decisions after music therapy. Plus, it can help slow the deterioration of speech and language skills; studies have shown that even when one loses the ability to speak, the ability to recognize and even hum or sing a favorite song remains.

  • Social Engagement: Music encourages bonding with others, whether it’s other residents, the professional staff or loved ones. This helps alleviate the feelings of isolation and depression many individuals with dementia can face.

  • Reducing Stress: Listening to music can help calm an individual and ease some aggressive behaviors or agitation.

Music therapy is a growing service provided in end-of-life care. The primary goal of palliative care is to promote patients' quality of life by alleviating physiological, psychological, social and spiritual distress, and improving comfort. In hospice and palliative care, music therapists use methods such as song writing, improvisation, guided imagery and music, lyric analysis, singing, instrument playing and music therapy relaxation techniques to treat the many needs of patients and families receiving care. Needs often treated by music therapists in end-of-life care include the social (e.g. isolation, loneliness, boredom), emotional (e.g. depression, anxiety, anger, fear, frustration), cognitive (e.g. neurological impairments, disorientation, confusion), physical (e.g. pain, shortness of breath) and spiritual (e.g. lack of spiritual connection, need for spiritually-based rituals). 


Music therapists endeavour to understand music’s significance for people who are mourning unfulfilled hopes and a life once lived; who are trying to deal with uncertainty, altered identities, saying farewells, or impending death. Music therapy allows persons experiencing grief or having other mental health needs to: explore personal feelings, make positive changes in mood and emotional states, have a sense of control over life through successful experiences, practice problem solving, and resolve conflicts leading to stronger family and peer relationships. Clients are assisted to find comfort and fellowship through identifications with lyrics and sonorities, and the improved expressive capacity offered in music.

While small amounts of stress are a normal part of everyday life, some older adults experience overwhelming stress and tension. Listening to music has been found to help people deal with stress and anxiety by slowing high heart rates and reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In music therapy programs, therapists may use songs with certain rhythms, themes, or lyrics to help people relax and reduce stress.

Playing music can motivate older adults to get moving, whether it’s by dancing, clapping, or even tapping their toes. Many music therapy programs use drums or tambourines to encourage seniors to participate and make their own music.

Music is known to bring people together. In music therapy programs, older adults are encouraged to communicate and connect with other members of their group, often making new friends in the process. The social aspect of music therapy helps seniors alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

elderly women holding hands on piano
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