Health Benefits of Music Therapy for Older Adults

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 01, 2021
3 min read

Music is a powerful force that evokes strong emotions, brings back heartwarming memories, and provides a way to express yourself. With this type of impact, it’s not surprising that music can be an effective tool for therapy. 

The field of music therapy has grown tremendously in the past century. It's now being offered in schools, community centers, and assisted living centers. Older adults can especially benefit from listening to music, as it gives them an outlet for creativity, socialization, and mental stimulation. Music therapy has even become an effective treatment plan for older adults with Alzheimer’s disease.

There are two main types of music therapy: active or receptive. You don’t need musical talent, so anyone can participate. 

Active music therapy. You’re actively involved with this type of therapy. It usually involves playing simple instruments, dancing, or singing. Such activity encourages physical stimulation that can be beneficial for physical health.

Receptive music therapy. This involves a period of time for mindful listening to music and typically involves specially curated recorded or live music. The song choices will often reflect the person's culture, generation, and personal experiences.

The right music can be an encouraging tool to help you be more physically active. More movement, whether that’s walking, dancing, or stretching along with music, can improve the following:

  • Heart and cardiovascular health
  • Muscle strength
  • Bone density
  • Balance and coordination
  • Flexibility

Directing a person's attention away from their pain with music therapy can help ease pain and lessen stress, too. Playing or listening to music helps you breathe rhythmically. This can improve respiratory health, help you release body tension, and lift up your mood — all of which can positively impact your overall quality of life. Physically, music therapy can help:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Improved breathing
  • Muscle relaxation

The same tools that promote physical health through music therapy can also improve mental health by reducing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Music therapy’s aim is to allow people to address issues and express themselves in a way that they normally can’t with words alone.

Depression and dementia are common diseases among older adults. Music therapy’s approach to bettering the quality of life for older adults makes it a viable tool for treating depression.

For older adults, isolation greatly impacts their mental health. Group music therapy can create means of communication with others that they wouldn’t normally have access to. Even just listening to music regularly can improve communication abilities for older adults who have difficulties with verbal communication. 

Music therapy has also been used to treat people experiencing trauma by helping them reduce stress and boost their mood. It's become so effective for dealing with trauma that it's considered a second wave of relief in the events around a crisis. Music therapy gives those coping with trauma the ability to safely express their feelings of anxiety in a relaxed environment.

Music is linked to memory. As you go through life, you will likely associate certain songs, artists, or genres with major milestones and events. These songs create a soundtrack for your life. Older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can use music to access their past experiences and memories. 

Musical memories often go untouched by Alzheimer’s disease, making music that much stronger of a treatment option. It can help reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and agitation.

People with dementia or Alzheimer’s may find it hard to communicate. These difficulties often lead to isolation and depression. Music provides a way for them to express themselves and communicate with their caregivers.

Familiar music helps those with Alzheimer’s maintain a grasp on their experiences and identities. Music therapy helps them keep a hold of reality and the things that bring them joy. While it’s no cure, music therapy can at least improve the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s.

You don’t need to be a professional musician to take advantage of music therapy tools. Anyone can implement music therapy elements in their everyday lives, but formal intervention requires a certified music therapist. Music therapists work in hospitals, mental health centers, senior centers, nursing homes, hospice programs, schools, and more. 

You can find a certified music therapist through the American Music Therapy Association Online Directory.