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Eldercare and the Power of Music


Marion Somers recently spied a $75 guitar at a garage sale and snapped it up. Somers, who is 69, doesn’t play the guitar, but she’d like to learn. “I love guitar music,” she says. “I love calypso music and dance music that has guitar; the sound of guitar resonates in my heart.”

Marion Somers, PhD, is known in the elder care field as “Doctor Marion.” She has spent the past 40 years as a geriatric care manager, consultant, lecturer, and teacher in the field of elder care. Her book, Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion’s 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One, gives practical suggestions for caring for an aging parent, spouse, or other loved one.

I talked to Doctor Marion about her first-hand use of music with elderly people, and how she has literally seen people get out of wheelchairs to dance when they are engaged through music.

Q: Why, at age 69, do you want to learn guitar?

A: Because I have no musical ability whatsoever - other than singing in the shower. I’m a painter and a poet, so I already know how to do those things. I’m looking for something totally new; I know the aging brain continues to grow when it’s challenged. Also, I know that music provides a kind of self comfort. There is a comfort in plucking the strings. And of course I want to challenge myself. I want to learn the guitar and learn how to play chess.

Q: So, you’re not a musician but you use music in your work?

A: Yes. I always use music with elderly clients. I was a pre-kindergarten teacher before I worked with the elderly. My PhD is not just in gerontology, but in special populations. I’ve worked with a whole roster of people with handicaps. People who others thought couldn’t be reached, and we reached them through music.

Q: Talk about how you’ve brought music to elderly people in nursing homes or institutionalized settings.

A: Thirty years ago, I was bringing washboards and spoons into nursing homes and people who were depressed or unresponsive were playing them, and having a ball. I was once hired by the family of a Hungarian woman in her 80s who refused to communicate because she was placed in a nursing home. She was completely unresponsive to everything, including a form of touch therapy I do. So, I went to the library and found some Hungarian music and played it. It didn’t move her at all. I don’t give up, so I went back to the library and found Hungarian gypsy music and brought it to her. She immediately came alive, and started talking in Hungarian. We got a translator. She was saying: “This is my music! This is my music.” She had been living in her own world. She was able to accept her situation after hearing the music, and started coming to music programs. The gypsy music touched her heart.

Q: know that many senior living facilities have concerts brought to them, but there is not much participatory music - where the residents get to learn or play an instrument.

A: Yes, that’s true. There is so much they could do; sing, play the harmonica. I always bring music to my clients, because I know it’s something they will enjoy, and I can get them rocking! I get them to stand up out of their wheelchairs. There are people who are desperate to get up and dance. But they are in wheelchairs, because of learned helplessness. The harmonica is an easy instrument to learn. It helps them with breath control. When you breathe deeply, you calm yourself. Most of us only use half of our lung capacity. Also, when you play an instrument, you need to concentrate. You breathe more deeply when you concentrate; oxygen feeds the brain, and you relax.

Q: You mentioned helping an elderly client play the piano for the first time in many years.

A: Yes, she was 93 or 94 and once played the piano, but could no longer play. So I brought her a Spalding ball to exercise her fingers. She built up her flexibility and finally limbered up her fingers enough to try the piano. She hadn’t played in 20 years. She started playing again, gave concerts to her grandchildren, and became a happier person. Everyone had written her off. We can do so much more when we allow ourselves to be pushed, in a gentle way, toward things that are satisfying to the soul.

Q: It sounds like music could replace antidepressants.

A: Absolutely. Music has the power to revive and resuscitate our sense of self. It no doubt has the ability to reverse depressions. You cannot be sad and sing at the same time!

Leah R. Garnett publishes Music After 50, a website for people over 50 who are looking to start, return to, or increase their involvement in music. This post first appeared on that site.

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