Music Therapy for Seniors: Conditions, Benefits and Finding Care

Music therapy is conducted with the aid of a therapeutic specialist and can include a variety of musical activities. Find out about the benefits of music therapy for seniors.

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Music Therapy for Seniors: Conditions, Benefits and Finding Care
5 Min Read August 24th, 2023

You’ll often hear that music can heal, but the phrase is sometimes used in a metaphoric sense. It might be something you do to unwind after a hard day, or to provide atmosphere at a gathering.

Ignoring for a moment that this sort of emotional healing can be valuable as well, music therapy is a large and growing aspect of caregiving. The documented medical benefits of music therapy are myriad.

Yet it’s often overlooked as a way to improve quality of life for those receiving care.

In this article, we’ll explain what music therapy is, how it can improve the quality of life for you or a loved one, how it’s used in caregiving for patients with specific long-term conditions, and we’ll discuss some resources for researching and finding music therapy for you or a loved one.

What Is Music Therapy?

Listening to relaxing music can be great, but it’s not considered music therapy.

The definition of clinical musical therapy says that a qualified music therapist must plan and lead the session within a therapeutic relationship for it to qualify as this form of treatment.

Within this definition, music therapy can help to manage various conditions and improve quality of life. It covers several activities related to music, such as listening, playing, and discussing music, and is part of a curated treatment plan that takes place during sessions with a certified therapist.

In this setting, music can be used in a variety of therapeutic ways. Some important facts about music therapy:

  • It is not limited to a specific age range. It’s often used in caregiving for the elderly, for example, but can also be a form of treatment for children, teens and adults of all ages.
  • Music therapy isn’t necessarily just listening to music. Treatment sessions could include playing an instrument, singing, dancing, or writing music.
  • Music therapy is used as part of more comprehensive treatment for a variety of conditions, including - but not limited to - dementia, brain injuries, stroke, anxiety disorders, depression, general pain, substance abuse, and more.
  • Treatment may include discussion of the music and the effect it has on you, not merely listening to it.
  • You don’t need to be a musician to benefit from music therapy.
  • Music therapists can operate in a variety of different care settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, correctional facilities, assisted living facilities, in-home care, and through hospice and palliative care services.
  • The use of therapeutic music can be beneficial but doesn’t qualify as music therapy if it’s not with a qualified music therapist.

Improving Quality of Life for Seniors

Do you know the cliche of playing the montage theme from Rocky movies to help yourself work harder at a task? It turns out there may be medical science backing up this practice:

Music therapy isn’t used to help people train for boxing contests, of course, but the idea that it can help inspire movement and activity is increasingly supported.

Movement can help to improve muscle strength, bone density, flexibility and heart health, among other health outcomes. And music can help spur this development.

Movement isn’t the only area of health that music can affect. Generally quality of life, including several cognitive and psychological factors, can be affected by music.

In a study on music therapy released in 2022, it concludes, in part:

“Thus, various authors defend the value of music to help in the well-being of people, in social relationships, in improving mood, in reducing anxiety and aggressiveness. It is an increasingly studied tool in the field of alternative medicine. Music therapies delay the onset of cognitive decline in older people, as well as helping those who already suffer from it.”

The study continues that, “Music therapy provides beneficial effects with regard to depressive symptoms, helping to reduce anxiety.”

Naturally, music isn’t the only thing that affects these mental states. The study goes on to talk about how other variables such as home environment and family support show improved outcomes for mental health and related symptoms like anxiety and depression. But regardless of environment, music therapy was able to improve their quality of life in measurable ways.

Music Therapy for Depression & Trauma

The body of evidence surrounding music therapy is considerable, and includes both standalone studies and those that aggregate results from various studies.

One such individual study, conducted in 2017 by the Cochrane Collaboration, found that “Music therapy for depression is likely to be effective for people in decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

With various caveats for the need to corroborate its findings with additional studies, the study found that traditional treatment alone was less effective than that same treatment with the addition of music therapy. A decrease in depressive symptoms was seen in this group.

The ways in which this makes a tangible difference in a person’s life are myriad, including:

  • Maintaining and engaging in relationships with loved ones
  • Staying engaged socially and/or in the workplace
  • Keeping up with activities of daily living, such as cooking and cleaning

The study cites several of these, noting improvement as a result of improved cognitive states.

Some of the additional caveats included the fact that the study couldn’t judge quality between different types of music therapy. It’s possible that additional tests could pinpoint this further, but it may also be an example of how different people will respond differently to various methods of music therapy.

Among several related findings, the study also stresses that “ participation is crucial for the success of music therapy. Participants do not need musical skills, but motivation to work actively within a music therapy process is important.”

This is why music therapy is designed to be guided by a licensed practitioner; maximizing the patient’s participation can be crucial, which may require a variety of techniques.

Perhaps even more profound is the progression that can be seen in some musical works, where the composers famously struggled with similarly depressive symptoms. This information has even been shared by clinical professionals accompanying live concerts that chronicle this journey. 

While the musical progressions in a great symphony might not constitute empirical evidence, they certainly provide beautiful metaphoric accompaniment to the more modern research being done in this field.

Music Therapy & Alzheimer’s

The Alzheimer’s Association has chimed in on this subject as well, endorsing the use of music therapy in improving behavioral issues that can be common in both the middle- and late stages of Alzheimer’s.

They include “Art” as a similarly stimulating activity that can have some of the same benefits. And while their advice isn’t necessarily geared toward clinical applications of music therapy, they offer general advice for anyone trying to harness the power of music for loved ones. This advice includes identifying music that will be familiar to the person with Alzheimer’s, avoiding commercial interruption (no free Spotify playlists, sorry!), and encouraging movement to coincide with the music.

WebMD confirms similar findings, including that “...older adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can use music to access their past experiences and memories.”

Just as important is to place these methods into perspective. The Alzheimer’s Association does encourage music therapy, but only as part of a more comprehensive daily care plan. Music therapy on its own is not enough to treat a condition, nor is it a replacement for the holistic care that these debilitating conditions necessitate.

Other Conditions

The American Music Therapy Association lists a number of other conditions and situations that music therapy can be beneficial in treating. These include:

  • Brain injuries
  • Autism
  • Hospice care
  • Pain management
  • Dementia and related memory disorders

Not all of these will be related to senior care, nor is it a comprehensive list of the situations where music therapy may be beneficial. The overarching point, though, is that music therapy can be a valuable addition to an existing care plan that can help achieve better results than traditional care alone.

Paying for Music Therapy

It’s estimated that around 20% of music therapists receive some form of reimbursement for their services via traditional insurance or supplemental programs for seniors.

Music therapy is reimbursable under Medicare, for example, but only if specific criteria are met. These criteria are as follows:

  1. It’s prescribed by a physician
  2. It’s considered reasonable and necessary for the treatment of illness, injury or condition
  3. Has a documented treatment plan that is goal-directed
  4. Treatment must show some level of improvement. Maintenance of current levels of functioning, without documented improvement, is not considered to be reimbursable.

Medicaid and private insurance will also reimburse music therapy in some specific circumstances, but there are many circumstances where they will not. Similarly, Long-Term Care Insurance covers in-home and facility care, and many caregivers or facilities will use music therapy as part of their plan of care. However, this will not always be the case. You should confirm first with your insurance provider before assuming music therapy is covered as part of your care coverage.

Finding a Music Therapist

The Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT) has a comprehensive list of all certified providers in their network. Asking your physician or care facility is another option to help find a certified therapist.

Finding a nearby provider may only be part of the equation, however, since you may need to confirm reimbursement status through an insurance provider or program such as Medicare. For that, you’ll need to contact your physician, care network and/or insurance provider to learn the details and options available to you.

For seniors looking to improve their quality of life as they age, or looking for ways to improve health outcomes for loved ones with debilitating conditions, music therapy can be a powerful tool to aid in achieving those goals.

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About the Author

Working with subject matter experts in the health and long-term care fields, Mark covers a variety of topics and industries related to health and aging.

LTC News Contributor Mark Wilson

Mark Wilson

Contributor since July 19th, 2023

Editor's Note

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What Are Long-Term Care Insurance Tax Deductions? (2023)

While physicians may lead the charge in promoting health and longevity, they must also lead by example in preparing for the potential challenges that come with extended life. Proper planning, fortified by the security of Long-Term Care Insurance, ensures not only the preservation of their legacy but also the well-being and peace of mind of their families.

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