Posted: March 8, 2023
Music is the soundtrack of life at Casey’s Pond. Residents often pause at our piano to play a tune or two. Soothing background music drifts through the Great Room, and residents enjoy the experience when we screen musicals. There’s enthusiastic singing at off-site devotional services and when musicians come to present concerts.
But given that music can also connect residents with one another and with their memories, we wondered how we might better use music in our community.
The health benefits of music therapy are well documented. Music has been used to address depression and anxiety. And studies find it’s not only useful in improving physical and emotional health, but also beneficial in treating dementia and memory loss. Andrew Wolk, an amateur musician and longtime social entrepreneur, knows all this.
While in Boston, he took an online music therapy course at the Berklee College of Music, wondering if he might find a way to combine his love of music with his deep desire to help others. “I’ve always thought music has an incredibly powerful way to give people help and well-being,” he says, “but I learned that to become a licensed music therapist you need two undergraduate degrees plus clinical certification.” It struck Andrew that while there were relatively few music therapists, the world was full of musicians.
So with the blessings of the Department Head of Berklee’s Music Therapy Program, and the assistance of a professor, Andrew developed a program that allowed musicians to bring many of the benefits of music therapy to assisted living communities—without the need for so much formal education. “We developed a program called ‘Older Adults Sing Along for Health and Well Being’ which I tested at an assisted living community in Boston,” says Andrew. “It was amazing to see the impact of music on older adults, and that included adults who were cognitively impaired.”
Results were so positive that, when Andrew relocated to Steamboat Springs, he wondered if we’d be interested in piloting the program here at Casey’s Pond. Once we understood what he was proposing, we couldn’t wait to get started.
There’s a world of difference between Andrew’s program and typical performances by visiting musicians. While we always appreciate musicians sharing their talents with our community, Community Health Musicians like Andrew offer something far more comprehensive. “When musicians play it’s sometimes more about themselves than the audience,” Andrew says. “They’re looking to play in front of people and that’s about it.” But Community Health Musicians like Andrew view performances from an entirely different perspective. “We think about whether we’re adding value to the health and wellbeing of the audience members,” says Andrew.
Which means what’s important to Andrew isn’t whether there’s applause for his guitar playing. More significant is whether the older adults who participate are interacting socially, and experiencing less loneliness and isolation. And, especially in the case of adults experiencing memory loss, whether they’re feeling less anxious and are strengthening their memory. Practically speaking, that means Andrew can’t just play what he wants to play. He’s adjusted his material to best meet the needs of his audience here at Casey’s Pond.
“I revised my entire songbook so I’m playing songs there’s a high likelihood the audience will know and remember,” he says. “Songs heavy on choruses are good,” he notes, songs such as “You Are My Sunshine, This Land is Your Land, and Take Me Home, Country Road.” “When you sing songs with which residents are familiar, you can sometimes pull a memory out,” says Andrew. “Someone will recall when they heard the song as a child, or where they were when they first sang the song. It’s amazing how music stays with you.”
Casey’s Pond residents who participate in the Older Adults Sing Along for Health and Well Being take part in 45 minute group sessions with Andrew. A professional caregiver is also in the group. Percussion instruments such as egg shakers are distributed, and each resident is gently encouraged to interact with both the music and with other residents. Large-print lyric songbooks and choosing easy-to-sing songs make it simple to join in.
One unexpected but totally welcomed twist is that some residents have invited their grown children to come to sessions as well. “That adds a whole new element of connection,” says Andrew. “At times a song has jogged memories in residents they’ve then shared with their children about singing a song while working in the kitchen or driving.”
Like Andrew, we’re delighted with programming that offers opportunities for interaction, so we’re carefully evaluating how the Older Adult Sing Along program impacts our community. If it assists us in making sure our residents sustain a healthy, fulfilling life, we’ll gladly make it an ongoing part of our schedule. But no matter what part it plays here at Casey’s Pond, we know this positive, innovative approach to music therapy for senior living will be growing in popularity.
The Berklee College of Music has been so impressed with Andrew’s work and the benefits it provides that the college is developing a “Community Health Musician” certification program and exploring launching a Community Health Musician Lab. The certificate program is expected to roll out this fall. And when that certificate program launches, we’ll be proud to have been a part of its journey.
Older Americans are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the United States. In 2019 there were 54.1 million people aged 65 and older. The population is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040 and almost double to 94.7 million by 2060.
As they age, older adults face many challenges in the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social domains. While there is a growing body of evidence of general music therapy interventions and ones that focus on for older adults, with a focus on acute care; there are only 9000 licensed music therapists in the U.S. today. There is an opportunity for musicians in communities across the country to become a health musician and use this evidence base to implement music-based experiences that support health and well-being outcomes for the non-acute older adult population.
Our Rhythms Life Enrichment Philosophy, focuses on wellness programs that cultivate each person’s purpose in life. Our new music program that Andrew Wolk is bringing to Casey’s Pond, aligns with this philosophy. Our Life Enrichment model is built on five pillars of wellbeing: social connection, intellectual engagement, purposeful living, physical health and spiritual growth. We are happy to welcome Andrew to Casey’s Pond.