Aging Well: Music Therapy Impact on Older Adults

July 20, 2017
Amy Clements-Cortes PhD MT-BC MT FAMI

Dr Clements-Cortes is an assistant professor, Music and Health Research Collaboratory, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; instructor, Wilfrid Laurier University and Ryerson Chang School; music therapist; and registered psychotherapist.

I have just returned from a trip to the 15th World Congress of Music Therapy in Tsukuba, Japan. With over 2800 delegates from 49 countries, it was an amazing opportunity to further the discipline of music therapy, not only as an art, but also as a science. At the congress, I presented multiple papers, but one of the highlights for me was being the moderator of the spotlight session on music therapy with older adults. In that presentation, delegates were fortunate to learn from four music therapy experts from Denmark, Australia, Japan, and South Africa. In this session, we learned about valuable research studies with older adults, as well as the challenges of implementing and sustaining music therapy without government funding or support through insurance.

In Dr. Hanne Mette Ridder’s (Denmark) talk on the role of caregivers and music therapists for well-being in persons with dementia, she shared her research study, which consisted of a series of in-depth interviews with the aim to: understand the benefits of musical interaction on well-being in persons with dementia and their caregivers, to explore best practice of caregivers’ use of music, and to reveal how music therapists may play a role in facilitating caregiver competences. Dr Hanne highlighted how music therapists may play an important role in coordinating and facilitating family and professional carers’ use of music. I advocate for professional caregivers to consider including music when they are providing care such as bathing, feeding, and dressing.

In Dr. Imogen Clark’s (Australia) talk on music therapy to support healthy aging and management of age-related disease, she discussed the role of music therapy for older people living in the community. In the first research project, she presented on the role of music therapy to promote independent physical activity in community-dwelling older adults with cardiac disease. Results suggested that personalized music-listening during exercise assists older adults with health conditions to exercise at increased intensity and manage negative experiences leading to improved health outcomes. Her second research project addressed the living-longer living-better policy in Australia, which focused on community-dwelling people with dementia and their caregivers. This project resonated with me as I recently did a similar study on singing for health and wellness of older adults with dementia and their caregivers. I was fortunate to share my research at the congress in the poster session.

In Dr. Mayu Kondo’s (Japan) talk on the current status of music therapy for the older adults in Japan she highlighted how music therapy is typically provided in hospital or care center settings and that pre-composed familiar music is predominantly implemented over clinical improvisation. This is not surprising considering what we know about long-term memory and the fact that songs learned in early life remain intact well into the first-to-moderate stages of dementia.

In Karen Stuart’s (South Africa) talk on creating connections, she highlighted that with over 2.2 million people living with dementia in South Africa, access to superior care is often lacking in quality and quantity especially in rural and under-resourced areas. The pilot study she presented explored the therapeutic use of singing as a resource in providing effective care of the elderly.  Results illuminated four themes: shared awareness, shared engagement, shared enjoyment, and shared intention. She acknowledged that, in a culturally diverse and under-resourced country like South Africa, therapeutic caregiver singing can be a valuable method of contributing to quality care of the resident while alleviating caregiver stress, as well as fostering the connection and relationship between the carer and the resident. I have seen in my own work with persons with dementia and their caregivers the value and benefit of music to engage and stimulate meaningful interactions.

You can read all about the papers presented at the congress in the book of proceedings that I co-edited, which is available free for download at
You can also review the conference program and read abstracts of the presentations at this link

I hope you take the opportunity to read some of the amazing submissions and consider how you might include music in your role with older adults.

Amy Clements-Cortes is Assistant Professor, Music and Health Research Collaboratory, University of Toronto; Academic Coordinator & Instructor, Interdisciplinary Studies, Ryerson Chang School; Instructor and Supervisor, Wilfrid Laurier University; Music Therapist and Registered Psychotherapist. Amy has extensive clinical experience working with clients at across the life span, with a specialty in older adults, dementia and palliative care. She has authored multiple peer reviewed publications, including her new 2016 book: “Voices of the Dying and Bereaved,” and she has given over 100 conference and/or invited academic presentations. Amy is President of the World Federation of Music Therapy (WFMT), and Managing Editor of the Music and Medicine journal. She is a past President of the Canadian Association for Music Therapists, and serves on the editorial review boards for 5 International journals. Notes By Amy was founded in 1995 and provides a variety of professional services including: Private Music Therapy, Psychotherapy, and Guided Imagery and Music Sessions; Performances; Clinical Music Therapy Supervision and Mentoring; Voice Lessons; Music Therapy Courses; and Research Collaboration.