MUSIC – Improving the Quality of Life
By: Susan Reid
Printed in Senior News (Southern Maine Agency on Aging)
July/August 2011

I fervently believe that our society has the responsibility to provide the highest possible quality of life to our older generation and people of any age who are in need of long-term care, regardless of their physical or mental limitations. One of my first experiences with some- one with severe dementia convinced me of this. Although this individual wasn’t able to communicate verbally, a look in her eyes said to me, “I’m still in here.” I could not neglect that person who was still in there, or others like her.

Music can be a bridge to a more healthy and joy-filled life. For the past 20 years I have brought music to seniors and for 15 of those years I have brought music therapy to those in long-term care facilities. I have witnessed what can only be called “small miracles” in reaching those with limited cognitive levels. I have also seen music raise the quality of life for higher functioning people of all ages.

For people that live in a long- term care facility or at home, music can be fun, promote socialization, and improve self-esteem—all of which leads to improved physical and mental well-being even for high functioning individuals. Music also works at a deeper level to provide a sense of order, familiarity, and control over one’s life. This is so important to those who have had to relinquish control over their finances, mobility, and such basic daily life choices as what to eat, not to mention the loss of physical control over their bodies, all of which leads to a diminished sense of dignity and well-being. Therefore, environments that offer choices and meaningful activities that nurture self-esteem should be encouraged. Music can contribute to such an environment, whether through in-depth music therapy or through things as games, sing-alongs, or other fun musical activities.

Individuals with dementia experience varying degrees of the disease and can also benefit greatly from music. Some believe that very low functioning individuals may not “know the difference.” But I have observed that human emotions transcend the ability of verbal communication and even of memory. I’ve learned this not only from my work in music therapy, but also from my training and professional experience as a musician and singer. I recall how four other musicians and I, who did not speak the same language, were still able to communicate great emotion while playing music together.

It is also important to realize that long-term memory and the part of the brain that processes music are not as affected by dementia as other areas of the brain. Individuals who are unable to recall their names can still sing every melody, lyric, and even harmonies to songs, which gives them a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride. In addition, for a person caring for a loved one, music brings the past into the present, providing a common ground as well as an enjoyable activity to share.

Dementia can also make familiar surroundings seem unrecognizable. How frightening it must be to not know where you are, if you are in the right place, or where you are supposed to go next! Some musical pieces are structured with repetitions, an even number of measures, and a beginning, middle and end. These can have a more ordered and, therefore, calming effect more than, let’s say, free-form jazz.

Lecturer and consultant Don Campbell is a recognized authority on the transformational powers of music in health, education and well-being. He is the author of 23 books including the bestseller, The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. He cites research which suggests that listening to certain Mozart pieces may improve certain kinds of mental tasks and conditions.

I personally have witnessed the power of the song “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” more than any other song, to calm a person agitated by dementia. I have also used music to calm a man enough to allow his body to accept the flow of liquid through a feeding tube. And I will never forget that very special person near the end of her life who no longer wanted to eat, who whispered a request to me for a “jumpy” song and then conducted in time to the music!

It is impossible for this article to cover all the ways that music can contribute to mental and physical well-being. On the deepest level, music can have a profoundly positive effect on people who are mentally or physically challenged. On the simplest level, music can bring a smile, a laugh, or even temporary relief from stress. At every level it is clear that the magic of music should be shared more frequently and recognized for its amazing power to enhance the quality of life for all human beings.

Susan Reid is an internationally renowned recording artist who provides themed musical revues of different eras, Broadway shows, holidays, special occasions and international music in seven languages. She is the founder of the Music and Motion Company, providing musical programs, sing-alongs, trivia, song sheets, dance movements and games for long-term care, assisted living, rehabilitation and adult day care facilities, senior centers and independent senior residences.

She has developed the series, “Sing, Dance, Reminisce,” each volume with hours of themed music activities. The books and CDs are a “grab and go,” designed to be used by even non-musical activity directors or volunteers for groups of older adults. Volume l covers the Roaring Twenties and Volume ll the Big Band 30s and 40s. Learn more at, email or call 207-438-9482.

The Big Reviews

"Impressive technical resources...versatile singer, intelligent musician...the naturally expressive beauty of her voice was reason enough to enjoy her program"

- Robert Sherman, The New York Times
"Hottest one-woman, wonderful and entertaining show...had the audience in the palm of her hand...melodic voice...medley of songs familiar to everyone"
- Seniors Today Magazine
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