Sometimes when you enter a nursing home you may hear familiar songs or dance music coming from the main dining room. Often the volumes are ear-splitting, even though most nursing home residents are not hard of hearing. Music does play an important role in the lives of nursing home residents, and musical activities can break up the day and sweeten it for people who would otherwise spend their time in tedious boredom. This is musical entertainment. It is not music therapy.
Music therapy is a discipline in which music is carefully selected and designed to meet the specific needs of the individual. This is true whether the therapy takes place in a group or individual setting. There are many approaches to music therapy. My specific approach is called Pastoral Music Therapy; that defines my own orientation, but any trained music therapist working in this setting will be using music in very specialized ways.
Because the music used in music therapy may sound like any other kind of music, music therapists in these environments are often confused with entertainers. But there is much that goes on below the surface. Even a recreation therapist playing music for residents is not the same. Music therapists have training in psychology, as well as specific ways of using music to address the resident’s unique circumstances and difficulties.
Music must fit the individual as closely and carefully as the clothes one wears. In music therapy there is no “one size fits all.” Music therapy begins with an assessment of the individual, taking into account the person’s history, personality, and musical preferences. In the actual work the music therapist may select music that will meet a resident’s anxiety, depression, or sense of isolation. My own approach is very cross-cultural, since I have found that music from a person’s culture or in a person’s native language often creates a sense of home and helps fight institutional depression.
There are many methods a music therapist might use. The therapist may invite the resident’s active participation to the extent the person is able. The resident might be given an instrument to play. Sometimes songwriting can help a person express feelings that are difficult or threatening to talk about in normal conversation. Some music therapists use guided imagery to enhance relaxation or evoke memories in a safe environment. The possibilities are as varied and as endless as the conditions and problems with which we live. You can find several examples of my approach to music therapy on my Pastoral Music Therapy website.
It is always a good idea to ask if your nursing home has a music therapist. If your loved one is open to music, see if you can schedule a visit. Unfortunately many nursing homes do not have actual music therapists on staff, instead delegating the use of music to recreation therapists who don’t have the same training. If the home is large or the number of music therapists is small, there may not be time for individual visits. The music therapist then typically works in groups. Even in a group setting, the music therapist will be sensitive to individual needs and will tailor the therapy accordingly.
It is good to be aware of music therapy as a possible resource, and to understand the difference between music therapy and recreational music. Both are important in the lives of the residents, but they serve different purposes and function very differently. In an optimal setting the residents will have access to both approaches to music and through them find their lives greatly enriched.
(C. Gourgey, July 2015)