Music and Aging


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When you earn the right to be considered a “senior citizen,” you discover that music serves you in a different way than it did when you were younger.

When I was 18 and a nursing student, I thought I was in love. The song, “Unchained Melody” came out at the time, and it became “our song.” It was beautiful, and it seemed as if everything stopped when it played so the whole Universe could listen. That was 65 years ago, but when I hear that song, I’m taken back to the sweet feelings of young love. I barely remember the boy’s name, but I do remember the warm, fuzzy emotions. It plays now and then on music channels partly because it was in the movie, Ghost,  and I still get those feelings when I hear it.

Many of us seniors have difficulty relating to contemporary music. Hard rock and Hip Hop are not in our musical vocabulary, nor are Death Metal and Grunge. Many of us grew up with Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, Frank Sinatra, the Beetles, and Elvis Presley. While there are some great vocalists we have some difficulty adapting to much of the music today.

Most of us started our music history with the 12-inch  vinyl record. By the time the 7-inch record was introduced, we had large collections and expensive phonographs, and so we bought adaptors or new machines so we could play either size. Then came CDs. This meant more new equipment. And the advent of portable CD players allowed people to listen to music regardless of where they were. (Some people had been carrying battery-operated radios or “boomboxes” with them so they could listen to their music! Oh, my!) It seemed like only a short time before MP3 players were introduced and, we learned to do digital downloads. But now we really don’t need any of those devices because we can listen to our music on our smartphones if we can figure out how to do that. We have adapted to all of these changes and now we ask, “What next?”

For seniors who are able to remain in their own homes, music is, in my opinion, a necessity. If you are alone, music helps fill the void. Research shows that It also enhances memory, promotes relaxation, encourages exercise, improves productivity, and lowers stress.

Thnk about it. It doesn’t take a great deal of research to know what music can do for you, especially if you are older.

Music and Memory enhancement

Just like Unchained Melody brings up memories of an old boyfriend, other songs stir up long-forgotten relationships, moments and events.

For example, hearing anything by John Phillip Soussa takes me back to my high school marching band.  I played the saxophone, and I loved the music and the friendships that being a band member provided. Hearing a sax can take me to any number of past places—like a trip to El Paso, Texas to play during a ballgame. I can remember the long bus ride and all the fun we had both going and coming back. It also makes me remember having a crush on a cute boy in the flute section and how disappointed I was in him when I asked him out for the annual Sadie Hawkin’s Day event for school. He was definitely not my type.

The Sesame Street theme song takes me back to preschoolers and all the fun my sons and I had when they were little. It always makes me stop for a moment and smile.  Then there was a commercial for cat food that had a cat singing a series of “Meows.” I thought it was funny and said so to my four year old. After that, every time it played, he would come running  while calling out, “Mama, mama, they’re playing the meow song.” I would scoop him up in my arms, and we’d laugh together at the funny commercial. He’s fifty now. I heard a commercial much like it the other day, and I still want to scoop him up in a  big hug.

Often in the afternoon, I’ll relax in my recliner and tell Alexa to play strings, or music from the fifties, or music from the best musicals on Broadway—whatever I’m in the mood for. And I sit, letting memories and their emotions flood over me. It is delightful.

Music Promotes relaxation and lowers stress

I live a relatively quiet life, but now and then, when too much is happening, I find myself becoming tense. Things I could handle easily when I was younger are much harder, and multitasking isn’t something I can do. Gone are the days I can cook dinner, talk on the phone, and do something else all at the same time and not get ruffled. However, when I begin to feel the tension building, I can get cozy in my recliner, find the music channels on TV and select some soft strings or tell Alexa to play something soft and soothing. Listening to these choices can usually unravel my tension quickly.

Music also is beneficial in meditation. After all these years, I still am easily distracted, and music brings me back to the meditation. I have my favorite CDs of meditation music, but sometimes I go to a site like YouTube for something different. Often the beautiful graphics combined with the soothing music can get me into a meditative state quickly, and I am reminded of two very old sayings: “music soothes the savage beast” and “Music is food for the soul.” I believe both of them.

Music Encourages exercise

One thing many of us seniors do not do is exercise. Music can help with that. When I was in my sixties, I had a tape cassette player and tapes that let me walk to the beat. I chose a very fast beat, but that beat slowed down over the succeeding years. Now, to be honest, the beat just makes me tap my foot. The days of dancing a jive are long over for most of us, but playing lively music can still encourage us to move faster and walk a little longer.

Music Increases productivity

Try a little experiment in your home. We all have to do a bit of house cleaning now and then, as much as we may try to avoid it. So the next time you see that you can no longer delay dusting, for example, do this. Pick two music choices—one lively and one slow.  I like Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy” for the peppy tune and something slow and sad like “The Last Goodby” to demonstrate the slow.  With Bobby McFerrin,  I can get the work done quickly and feel good about it. With The Last Goodby” I’d never get the dusting or anything else done.

Music as therapy

But there is a more serious application of music, and that is in the treatment of elderly patients in nursing homes and other institutions. According to the Foundation of NAMM (the National Association of Music Merchants) research shows:

  • Music has been found to stimulate parts of the brain, and studies have demonstrated that music enhances the memory of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
  • Adults age 60 to 85 without previous musical experience exhibited improved processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly 30-minute piano lessons and three hours a week of practice.
  • Playing an instrument as a kid leads to a sharper mind in old age.
  • Cognitive and neural benefits of musical experience continue throughout the lifespan, and counteract some of the negative effects of aging, such as memory and hearing difficulties in older adults
  • Involvement in participatory arts programs has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, physical health, and social functioning in older adults, regardless of their ability.
  • Research shows that music activities (both music listening and music making) can influence older adults’ perceptions about the quality of their lives
  • Music keeps your ears young. Older musicians don’t experience typical aging in the part of the brain (the auditory cortex) that often leads to hearing troubles. It’s never too late to start taking piano lessons and prevent these age-related changes.
  • Playing music reduces stress and has been shown to reverse the body’s response to stress at the DNA-level
  • Playing music “significantly” lowered the heart rates and calmed and regulated the blood pressures and respiration rates of patients who had undergone surgery.
  • Blood samples from participants of an hour-long drumming session revealed a reversal of the hormonal stress response and an increase in natural killer cell activity
  • Anger Management Music therapy can help people identify the emotions that underlie anger and increase the patient’s awareness of these feelings and situations that can trigger them. If a situation or emotion is presented in a song the healthy options for expressing that feeling can be discussed and conflict resolution and problem solving can be practiced in a positive manner.
  • Playing a musical instrument can reverse stress at the molecular level, according to studies conducted by Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems (as published in Medical Science Monitor).
  • Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a study with 30 depressed people over 80 years of age and found that participants in a weekly music therapy group were less anxious, less distressed and had higher self-esteem (Friedman, “Healing Power of the Drum,” 1994).
  • Parkinson’s Disease and Stroke: Rhythmic cues can help retrain the brain after a stroke or other neurological impairment.
  • Cancer Subjects who participated in a clinical trial using the HealthRhythms protocol showed an increase in natural killer cell activity and an enhanced immune system. While this does not indicate a cure for cancer, such results may be of benefit for those facing this disease.
  • Playing music increases human growth hormone (HgH) production among active older Americans. The findings revealed that the test group who took group keyboard lessons showed significantly higher levels of HgH than the control group of people who did not make music (University of Miami)

You don’t have to be old and in the proverbial rocking chair to enjoy music. It is meaningful, inspiring, and healing for all ages. But as you grow into your senior years, music can play a significant role in your well being. It will help you sleep, sharpen your memory, soothe you, get you moving, and simply give you joy.

And so, if’s appropriate to leave you with this song by ABBA “Thank You for the Music.”

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