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by James Skarnikat
The many benefits of music as we grow older
“It’s inside of us”
A woman approached me recently, tearful and trembling, eager to share her thoughts about music. She was a resident in a retirement community where I just finished a concert. She confided how the songs I sang made her feel.
Touching her heart, she said, “It’s inside of us”.
She went on to explain that the music I selected that afternoon connected and resonated with her and the audience. I played familiar and much-loved songs, and the audience enjoyed hearing the tunes as much as I enjoyed playing them.
Music for older adults provides many benefits, it’s true for anyone at any age, but our relationship with music deepens as we grow older, sometimes resulting in miraculous moments.
Aging can either deepen or diminish one’s relationship with memory. Music is often the catalyst to memory’s renewal. There is a carnal reaction when we hear a familiar song, a visceral response, akin to re-experiencing a flavor or a scent. It goes right to our mysterious core and “takes us back”. It’s part of our DNA.
Music distracts us from our cares
In some countries in the world, ‘Therapeutic Recreation’ in assisted living is called ‘Diversional Therapy’, because it diverts us from our cares. Music distracts us from our woes. Recorded music should always be at-the-ready to transport us away.
Whether enjoying the care of a community or the comforts of your own home, YouTube became a blessing during our recent tough times and many folks continue to use this medium to connect with music. With ready access to almost anything we can imagine, our favorite titles are at our fingertips.
Music videos were the medium through which I primarily connected with my audiences during the worst of the pandemic, but for a few socially distanced outside concerts. My goal was to curb people’s isolation.
Yet my channel is just the tiniest sliver of the vast universe of content. I’m a big fan of programs from the golden age of television, like ‘The Lawrence Welk Show’ and ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, or concerts from pop favorites like The Everly Brothers to classical renditions by André Rieu, even bombastic drum solos by Buddy Rich on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson’.
Transformative benefits of music
After each of my concerts, I prompt members of my audience to share their feelings. Well-wishers approach to recount something brought to the surface. Sometimes they’re made to patiently wait their turn as the person ahead of them pours their heart out, transfixed by their own thoughts, oblivious to the room around them by the memory they confide in me, so important that moment between us is to them…all because of a song.
Often, when summoned to the side of someone that isn’t ambulatory, I lean in to be within earshot of the expression they’re so desirous to share. It never ceases to amaze me.
Music restores the mind, body and soul.
More than just filling in time, the songs we relate to are the fabric of our being. Listening to music restores the mind, body and soul.
Music is a medium through which we connect to our inner selves.
With just a few notes, we are instantly transported to another place and time. Our formative roots become stimulated for renewed growth as we tap into our very being. Thoughts of family and friends come flooding back. Memories, good or otherwise, rush to the surface prompted only by sound. It is truly amazing.
The pleasure center in the brain sends powerful signals that break through our moods and minds, evoking goosebumps and chills, laughter and tears, joy and even angst.
Music allows us to “time travel”
I witness the miracle of refreshed memories daily in my line of work. What a gift it is to observe. Many of my audiences are in long-term care and secure dementia units, the places where the most striking examples of cognitive stimulation happen.
There is bitter-sweetness in seeing someone sing along to a song from a lifetime ago while simultaneously not recognizing the details of a conversation with the family member beside them. Yet somehow, they still know the tune. Music has a way of remaining in our psyche even when other things slip away.
And even more benefits
Singing along to music has layers of benefits from improving blood flow, to increasing lung capacity, to the growth of grey matter in the brain, to the social opportunities it can create.
Music is essential at every age
I would argue that music is an essential component to everyone’s personal cognitive care, everyone at every age. By listening to music, or even better yet, by participating in music, you bolster the resilience of your mind.
From certified Music Therapists, to volunteer groups of school-aged kids, to professional entertainers, and everyone in between, I say it every chance I can, “More music for more seniors”.
And to you in charge of your own well-being, you can do more too.
Join a choir. Sing karaoke. Play an instrument. Attend concerts. Clap along. Have your favorite songs playing in the background. Doing these things may boost your mood and stave-off the degenerative effects of aging.
There are times for silence too, all things in balance, but periodic injections of ‘Good Vibrations’ help positively wire the brain.
Music and memory
Time-and-again, I’ve observed an older person transported back to their youth, to the family home, to memories of the piano in the living room, where music filled the air…this story has been repeated to me in countless variations. It never gets old.
The benefits to those in ‘memory care’ are obvious, but it shouldn’t be underestimated for others. The simple process of floating away to one’s favorite music is valuable for everyone.
We connect with the foundation of our lives through the music we enjoy. As music evokes memories, our intellect is stimulated as we identify with ourselves, our lives. In this crazy world, a little escapism is comforting. Familiar loved music is a therapeutic distraction.
And in the process of listening, fingers and toes begin to tap. We move and sway and wiggle in our seats. We hum or sing along. We dance. All this provides essential physical activity that literally keeps our bodies healthier.
My siblings and I would sit up with mom until the wee hours just listening to music and talking. These are among my most cherished memories.
There is power in music
Perhaps this is why we are a musical species, just one of many. The benefits of music are exhibited by birds and dolphins and other creatures too. This suggests that musicality is essential for survival among highly-cognitive species. It is our fabric, from family units to broader societies, it’s “the tie that binds”, to borrow from Johnny Cash.
Simply put, music just feels good. That is the miracle within.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Skarnikat is a musician, YouTuber, author and Nutritional Manager from Hanover, Ontario, specializing in concerts for long-term care, retirement homes and seniors’ centres. A 35-year tenure in the senior living industry, formerly managing kitchens and support services, he’s now a contractor to Recreation Therapists coast to coast, over 2500 concerts in 500 facilities. During the pandemic, people around the world viewed his programs his YouTube channel, ‘Jimmy’s Old Time Radio Show’, were viewed around the world during the pandemic. He’s the author of the eBook, ‘Jimmy’s Old Time Radio Show – Stories and Advice from Canada’s Care Home Entertainer”, also founder of the Care Homes Entertainers Association, an ongoing member of the Canadian Society of Nutritional Managers, an Associate Member of the Music Therapy Association of Ontario, a Long-term Care Administration graduate with additional dementia studies, and an advocate for seniors’ services.