Musician tips for programs with seniors in long-term care

Proximity, eye contact and clarity are key when communicating with seniors

Music, the Universal Language

Without words, music touches us intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically.  Lyrics and songs can bring back memories from across decades.  Because we internalize music in so many ways, it can be a powerful force for good in building bridges and community, and making connections into the minds and hearts of seniors in long-term care and others in congregate care settings.  ‘The arts build community,’ and we are using them at TAO to bring the community at large to interact with those who are isolated from society due to health, age, infirmity and more.

Approximately half of the people in long-term care today suffer from some form of dementia.  As their illness progresses, they often become increasingly withdrawn and require more direct communication, interaction and approaches to bring them into their present setting.  This article provides some tips to help artists bring these people into their programs.

Two other facts about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias:  As our age expectancies increase, more of us will experience dementia in the later years in life.  Half of people over age 85 have some form of dementia.  This fact, plus the huge baby boomer population that are quickly become America’s senior citizens, means that people requiring assisted living and nursing home care are predicted to skyrocket in coming years, placing an enormous burden on caregivers and our health care systems.

Client-centered, versus artist-centered programs


An artist-centered program:

–          an artist has a specific set of music and presents music that is of interest to him or her

–          conversation isn’t necessary; the music can speak for itself

–          the sound quality of the room is not a priority; if people want to hear, they can move closer

–          the artist does not check in with audience for feedback

–          the artist does not get to know individuals in the audience

A client-centered program:

–          artist engages participants throughout the program to out who clients are, what are their interests and backgrounds, what their musical preferences are, what part of the country they are from, etc.

–          Constantly engages participants through conversation, singing, proximity, eye contact, small instruments and/or song sheets, activities based on music cues, etc.

–          the priority is not the amount of material presented; it’s about how much meaningful engagement occurs.  Can you teach them something new?  Can you help them express themselves creatively?

Proximity and eye contact:

Many of the program participants we interact with take longer to get into the swing of things than a younger person.  Their minds aren’t as sharp.  They will get it, it will just take longer and a little more effort.  So as you move through your songs, take time to introduce each one, offering ideas for participation, reviewing a chorus if you want folks to sing along, etc.

Conversation to bring people into your program and ensure their comprehension:

–          what did you think about that song?

–          do you remember the first time you heard that song?

–          that song was written in 1943.  what were you doing in 1943?

–          do you remember the movie (or singer) that made that song famous?

–          Ask people if they relate to your material – railroad workers, hoboes, fishing, flying, etc.  Folks in your group are from all walks of life and have many interesting stories to tell.  Look to staff to help you get those stories out.

  • Another benefit to this type of interaction:  it helps residents and staff get to know each other better.  This type of group conversation is not always easy to come by in these residences, and new people are constantly joining the ranks.

A note about pitch and tempo:

There are very few sopranos in long-term care – if there are any, they are probably staff, not residents. These next few tips are simple, yet critical components if you want to encourage participation:

–          If your material is arranged for soprano or tenor voice, transpose your music to a lower register so that people can sing along.

–          Slow your songs down, and watch people follow you.  You can tell your song is too fast by watching participants mouth the words.  I guarantee they willnot keep up with most regularly-tempoed songs.

–          Choose songs with fewer words.  “I can’t help falling in love with you,” sung by Elvis Presley, “When You’re Smiling,” “Bye, bye Blackbird all are  good examples.

–          Songs that tell stories, like ballads, are entertaining.  If you have them in your repertoire, use them, but alternate them with more participatory material, to keep people involved.

Can they hear you?  Enunciation and amplification

A small amplifier and a microphone will go a long way in ensuring people can hear you and are comfortable in joining in with you.  Oftentimes musicians are competing with ice machines, dishwashers, floor cleaners and the overhead PA system.  Plus, some residents are hard of hearing.  Another opportunity:  letting residents use your microphone (here’s where a staff person or helpful program host can be enlisted) for a good singer – yes, we often have these in long-term care!  Residents love to see ‘one of their own’ highlighted in this way.


About maryann4tao

Executive Director at Tidewater Arts Outreach. Former Volunteer Hampton Roads Training Manager and United Way/Salt Lake City Major Gifts Officer.
This entry was posted in Artists, Community Volunteers, music, seniors, TAO Programs, teachers, Training and Workshops and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s