Aging Well: Music benefits older adults as therapy, entertainment |

Aging Well: Music benefits older adults as therapy, entertainment

Tamera Manzanares

Editor's Note: This article originally was published Aug. 9, 2010. It has been updated for accuracy.

You are sitting in your car and a certain song comes on the radio.

A flurry of emotion pumps through your veins and transports you to a different time and place. The feeling can leave as quickly as it came, or can change your mood for the entire day.

Music's ability to reach us on a deep, emotional level has long fascinated scientists. Some therapies use music to help individuals experiencing or recovering from challenges including autism, Alzheimer's disease, grief, chronic pain, stroke and depression.

Orchestra opportunity

The benefits of music as therapy and entertainment have prompted coordinators of the nonprofit Steamboat Symphony Orchestra to provide free admission to concerts for some older adults in Routt County.

Letters of invitation to the orchestra's spring concert, March 27, have been offered directly to facilities and organizations helping older adults. These letters provide free admission for low-income, older adults.

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The organization's Strings Ensemble and Youth Musicians — composed of intermediate and advanced teen and adult musicians — present a spring concert March 29 that is free to all seniors.

"We have a lot of local supporters and donors, and it's just a way to give back," said Lou Mathews, executive director of the Steamboat Symphony Orchestra. "Music plays a very important part in many people's lives — maybe increasingly so for seniors and this group we are reaching out to."

Fifty-five musicians, including locals and out-of-town performers, comprise the professional orchestra led by music director Ernest Richardson. The dedication and talent of the group, which includes full- and part-time musicians, make for a high-quality classical music experience people might not expect in a rural area.

The Strings Ensemble and Youth Musicians also provide audiences with an engaging and rewarding musical experience.

"We are so incredibly proud of this orchestra," Mathews said.

Music therapy

Various studies indicate that regularly listening to certain types of music can help reduce chronic pain, high blood pressure and stress, facilitate relaxation and concentration, and boost immunity, among other benefits.

During World War I and World War II, musicians would perform for physically and emotionally traumatized veterans in hospitals. Veterans' positive health response, and the realization that specially trained musicians could have an even more positive effect, drove the evolution of music therapy as a profession in the U.S.

Today, degree programs at Colorado State University and other schools train students to customize musical activities to the particular needs of individuals and groups.

Many music therapists specialize in helping certain populations. Neurologic music therapy, for example, focuses on stimulating brain or behavior functions in patients with conditions affecting their nervous systems.

Individuals who have suffered strokes, for example, may be able to sing when they are having difficulty speaking. Therapy emphasizing rhythms and singing can help these individuals develop functional speech, explained Meridith Lager, a music therapist in Denver.

"The way the brain processes music is really fascinating," said Lager, who works primarily with individuals with Alzheimer's disease and dementia living in skilled nursing and assisted-living facilities.

Depending on patients' needs, Lager may facilitate activities that involve singing familiar songs or making music with drums or hand-held percussion, dancing or moving to music to encourage exercise.

Sometimes she will play music from the 1930s and 1940s to spur memories and discussion. She may work with physical therapists, occupational therapists or other professionals to reach specific goals.

"Almost immediately, I see a positive change in (participants') mood and emotional states," she said.

Overall, she aims to reduce participants' anxiety and improve their self-esteem for a positive experience.

Music is a familiar and, thus, non-threatening activity for many people, which helps open the door for emotional stimulation where other activities are unsuccessful.

"It provides opportunities for self-expression when they have little control over other parts of their lives," Lager said.

Structure and success

Audrey Lyons, a music therapist at the Julie Temple Healthcare Center in Englewood, develops music activities based on the skills and needs of patients with middle- to late-stage Alzheimer's disease.

Once the activities become routine, they add structure to participants' daily lives, boosting their confidence, reducing their anxiety and improving their attention span and listening skills.

"I'm able to set them up for success, and they feel good about themselves," Lyons said. "Music helps provide structure and timing that motivates them and keeps them going."

Lyons developed a playlist of residents' favorite songs that are played on speakers in parts of the facility. The same songs are played during certain routines, such as walking to the dinner hall or getting ready for bed.

"We've noticed the environment is calmer, and there is less agitation," she said.

Music therapy also can be helpful for families coping with the challenges of a loved one's Alzheimer's or dementia.

"You can get a glimpse of mom or dad once in a while through the use of music," Lyons said.

This article includes information from the American Music Therapy Association and

Tamera Manzanares writes for the Aging Well program and can be reached at Aging Well, a division of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, is a community-based program of healthy aging for adults 50 and older. For more information, visit or call 970-871-7606.

Orchestra reaches out to older adults

The Steamboat Symphony Orchestra’s spring concert is at 5:30 p.m. March 27 at the Strings Music Pavilion. Letters of invitation for free admission have been offered to residents of the Doak Walker Care Center and The Haven Assisted Living Center; hospice patients; and low-income older adults, through LIFT-UP of Routt County and the Routt County Council on Aging. Free admission extends to the attendee and one guest.

The Steamboat Strings Ensemble and Youth Musicians present a spring concert at 7 p.m. March 29 at the Steamboat Christian Center. The concert is free to all seniors.

For more information, visit or call 970-870-3223.

Musician volunteers

Are you an artist or musician and enjoy sharing your talent with others? The Aging Well program invites you to share your work with older adults attending Wellness Day programs, at the South Routt Community Center on Mondays and the Haven Community Center in Hayden and the American Legion in Craig on Wednesdays. Guest speakers or entertainers are featured from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. on these days. To volunteer, call 970-871-7676.

Learn more

■ To learn more, take a look at “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” by Dr. Oliver Sacks, online


■ For more information about music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association at or the Colorado Association of Music Therapy at

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