Music Therapy and Aging
Music Therapy and Aging
For the past decade, Melita Belgrave, PhD, a professor of music therapy, has been connecting older and younger generations to create positive intergenerational experiences and normalize the aging process. She’s also been conducting individual music therapy sessions for people with dementia. Belgrave fell in love with music herself at the age of four when her grandmother (strongly) encouraged her to play the piano. She spent much of her childhood with her grandmother, which shaped her feelings about aging and her intergenerational research.
A Q&A with Melita Belgrave, PhD
My grandma and I were best friends, so I naturally spent a lot of time with her and her friends growing up. I was the eight-year-old singing, playing piano, chatting, playing card games, watching soap operas, you name it, with seventy-year-old women. I had great admiration for them and look back very fondly on those times. It shaped the way I think of aging. But not everyone has such a positive experience with older adults, if they are fortunate to have any experience at all.
My research examined if and how these intergenerational relationships impacted the lives of different generations. And since I value the connection between older and younger generations, I was happy to see the research reflect that both older and younger generations benefit from positive intergenerational connections. Older adults improve their quality of life, social engagement, and physical activity and fulfill a sense of giving back. For younger generations, it helps to decrease stereotypes about aging, improve their comfort level around older adults, and create positive attitudes toward older adults. With an increase in the aging population in US, it’s important that younger generations see value in the lives of older adults and remember that aging is a natural part of life.
Most of us have experienced the power of music in connecting people, whether it’s a concert or a karaoke night. In my research, I looked at how it connects older adults with preschoolers, fourth graders, and college students, specifically. It was beautiful and entertaining to see. We used music as a source of interaction between the groups. From sing-along songs to rock band concerts, we found meaningful ways to connect the age groups that improved their cognitive skills and provided positive intergenerational experiences.
In one experiment with preschoolers and older adults, we used songs to help preschoolers learn their sight words (words that a child learns to recognize without sounding out the letters). Both the preschoolers and older adults learned and recited the songs, and the older adults helped with visual cues. We saw improvement in the preschoolers’ word and song recognition, and they gained positive, engaging experiences with older adults.
Each age group differed in how they connected. In the fourth-grade experiment, it was sometimes awkward getting the kids and older adults to become comfortable with one another. The shyer groups of fourth graders and older adults would say barely anything without my being involved. I used music activities with structured conversation prompts to create an environment for them to interact in. Fortunately by the end of the program, things dramatically changed—I couldn’t get the fourth graders and the older adults to stop talking to one another. We included reading and writing exercises so the fourth graders could practice these skills and the older adults could help them. We saw that the fourth graders improved their academic skills, and the older adults felt a sense of giving back. I remember there was an older adult who couldn’t see her grandchildren very often, and when she did, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. She thoroughly enjoyed our fourth-grade program because she was able to get a positive intergenerational experience that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
For college students and older adults, I used music performance to connect the two groups by creating a rock band. Each semester, a group of college students and older adults performed a concert with pop music from the ’60s to modern-day—cue “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Uptown Funk.” They sang songs, played instruments, and performed choreography. By reciting music and learning to play an instrument, they were able to build cognitive skills, focus, and attention. And the choreography allowed for more physical activity and coordination. The older adults really embodied the music, which helped them connect with the college students. And it translated to an increase in connection with their adult children—they could now sing along when they heard the song on a playlist or watching TV. Playing in the band allowed their self-expression to increase while their sense of isolation decreased. The program gave them consistent motivation to get up out of bed every day and leave their house, especially for those with depression. And both parties left the program with positive (and fun) intergenerational experiences.
While dementia is not a normal part of aging, as the aging population increases, so do the chances of dementia and dementia-related illnesses. I did research with people in the late stages of dementia, when they often went into hospice facilities. They started losing their language, ability to sit up, and awareness of their surroundings, but their essence was still there. I gave individual music therapy sessions using my guitar, music recordings, and voice. With most of my patients being in late stages of dementia, there was often a ten- to fifteen-minute delay from the time I started my sessions to the time their eyes would light up and they were able to be present with me—that was a special transition in the session. The therapy sessions allowed them to engage, even in the smallest ways, until the end of their lives here.
While doing research in hospice facilities, I realized that incorporating other sensory perceptions was also important. I began with touch. Older adults in hospice facilities often don’t receive as much touch as other population groups. This lack of touch can result in skin hunger, which is the need to be in physical contact with others; without it, mental health can be compromised. Many of my patients had skin hunger, so I began to incorporate touch into their sessions, whether I was consensually touching them on the arm or they were touching a soft object. Unfortunately, skin hunger and touch deprivation are far too common in hospices, and this was heightened even more during the pandemic.
Every older adult is not the same—of course. They didn’t just suddenly turn seventy. They had full lives with different interests, goals, obstacles, and triumphs. We must respect that and get to understand it when conducting music therapy sessions or any other interactions. Embrace and celebrate it: It’s beautiful.
Melita Belgrave, PhD, is a professor of music therapy at Arizona State University. Belgrave wrote a chapter in and coedited Music Therapy in a Multicultural Context: A Handbook for Music Therapy Students and Professionals. She also coauthored Music Therapy and Geriatric Populations: A Handbook for Practicing Music Therapists.
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