Turn on the Tunes

Music promotes quality of life as we get older

By Peggy Edwards

Lately, there has been an increased focus on the benefits of music for all ages and particularly for older people. Music provides both mental and physical stimulation and evokes emotions and memories. I pause, sing along and get tears in my eyes when I hear Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” I remember good friends and good feelings, but times of protest too when I hear Simon and Garfunkel singing “Feeling Groovy” and “Sounds of Silence.”

I dare you not to dance and sing along to some of your favourite tunes from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Whether we enjoy the memories around tunes we love, the social experience of singing in a choir, or some good feelings reflecting on a musical recording, older adults can use music as an effective way to energize ourselves, relieve stress and increase feelings of well-being.

Remember when the Sony “Walkman” was all the rage? It turns out that walking to music with a steady beat is more than just a fun way to listen to your favourite tunes. Studies show that it actually improves your walking speed, stride length, walk rhythm and symmetry.

As you get older, your walking pace may drop and your steps become shorter and less certain. These changes can lead to decreased mobility, a decline in quality of life, and increased risk of falls and injury. When you are walking and listening to a catchy song, the music encourages you to step up the pace and move in time to the beat. Walking speed and “gait” (pattern and manner of walking) are important for optimal aging. Whether you realize it or not, you may be training yourself for a longer, healthier and more active lifestyle by listening to music while you walk.

These encouraging results are supported by other studies about the benefits of music, particularly for people who have had a stroke, have a serious illness such as cancer or dementia, or are in hospital undergoing treatment or surgery.

Music can be a powerful source of joy and comfort for people with dementia and for those around them. When words fail, music provides a way for a person with dementia to connect with others and engage with memories and emotions. Relaxing music has been shown to promote cooperation during meal times and receiving one-on-one personal care — such as bathing.

An innovative program called The Circle of Music, provides people living with dementia an opportunity to sing with volunteer high school students and their caregivers, while also being involved in the community. The student sits between the person living with dementia and the care partner and facilitates participation, for example by ensuring they’re at the right place on the lyrics sheet. This creates meaningful interaction between the teenager and the person with dementia and gives the care partner a chance to focus only on the joy of making music. The student is always paired with the same partners, which allows the trio to get to know each other while providing the predictability a person living with dementia needs. Sasha Judelson, the Wilfrid Laurier University graduate student who started the program, says: “The most meaningful successes are how much it’s come to mean to the members of the choir. They really love coming to it and the atmosphere that they have created.”

Alive Inside is an inspirational film documenting music’s healing power in people with Alzheimer’s disease. One of the excerpts is about Henry who lives in a nursing home. His mind is clouded, he is unresponsive to most stimuli, and he doesn’t remember his own daughter. But when he’s given an iPod with some of his favourite tunes on it, everything changes. His face lights up, he remembers the artists he loves and their songs, and he can carry on a lengthy conversation about the music he listened to as a younger man. You can see this amazing story on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=Hlm0Qd4mP-I.

The idea of using music to benefit patients is not new. Apparently, Florence Nightingale believed in its soothing capacity. Yet, it is only recently that large studies have shown the healing power of music. In a study of over 1,500 people with cancer, music therapy helped to reduce anxiety, pain and depression, and also slightly lowered fatigue.

The evidence suggests that music is helpful for anyone spending time in hospital and that patients may benefit more when they choose the music themselves. This makes sense. If you are a classical music fan, hip hop and rock may not have the desired effect.

Music therapy is the skillful use of music and musical elements by an accredited music therapist to promote, maintain, and restore mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. For more information on music therapy visit musicheals.ca.

Happily, I am healthy. But music still plays a large role in my life. I feel energized and happy after I attend Shout Sisters — a choral singing group where you don’t have to read music or even be a good singer. (See below for more information). CBC classical music calms and energizes me in the morning. I sing along and sometimes dance to playlists that I have created while I am making dinner. My dog Molly sometimes joins in when I sing in the car…and often get strange looks from other drivers.

Play that funky music

Way before iTunes existed, there was the ancient art of the mixed tape or CD. Now you can easily create your own playlists using iTunes, Google Music or Shopify. Here are some tips on making a playlist for you or someone else.

  1. Pick a mood, theme, or idea to organize your playlist. You can create playlists to mellow out or to energize, focus on themes such as family favourites, great jazz singers, love, travel songs, tunes for walking or music from a particular decade.
  2. Create several shorter playlists rather than one long playlist so you can enjoy them at different times and for different purposes.
  3. Go ahead and mix different styles: you can draw on folk, country, pop, dance music, spiritual and classical styles to tell a story or reinforce a mood. Arrange them in an order that helps to improve mood or increase your energy levels.
  4. If you are making a playlist for someone else, use their favourite tunes and type of music. Ask the person what kind of music they like and the era it was popular. Choose a few songs based on his/her culture (traditional and modern) and from the decade he/she would have been as a teenager and in their 20s. These are the tunes we tend to remember best. Watch how the person reacts to your first playlist and make adjustments based on which pieces they respond to.

Group Singing in Ottawa

Want to sing with others? Church choirs are a good option and the CAMAC list will help you find singing opportunities: cammac.ca/ottawagatineau/files/english/Choirlist-E.pdf

Popular group singing opportunities (no auditions, come and try) include:

  • Shout Sisters: Women singing a fun variety of music from pop and Motown, to folk, country and blues. Three Ottawa chapters: Centre (Tuesday evenings), West (Thursday evenings) and Afternoon choir (Wednesday 1pm – 3pm). New members welcome. shoutsisterchoir.ca
  • 613 Casual Choir: Drop-in choir meets every six weeks at a local pub. See you tube video at youtube.com/watch?v=TSLwKLHKgrY
  • Big Soul Project: Ottawa’s largest community choir, choral music with roots in R&B, gospel, soul, rock and motown. There was a waiting list at time of writing. bigsoulproject.com
  • Pitch Imperfect Singers: Kitchissippi United Church, every two weeks from 7pm – 8:30 pm on Wednesdays. pitchimperfectsingers.com

How does music play a part in your journey of aging and life? Write to me at wanderingpeggy2016@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.

Peggy Edwards is a well-known writer and speaker on aging and health and is a co-author of The Healthy Boomer: A No Nonsense Midlife Health Guide for Women and Men, available at amazon.ca.