Caring Currents

Stress and the Music Cure

Last updated:

July 22, 2009
I love my music !
Image by shankar, shiv used under the creative commons attribution license.

Music can't make the demands of caregiving go away, but it can make you more healthfully equipped to plow through those demands. Music therapy is a fascinating and growing field, and you don't have to be the person who's sick to benefit.

In June, the inaugural conference of the International Association for Music and Medicine explored the countless ways tunes can help heal, whether you're recovering from surgery or cancer, coping with grief, having a baby -- or caring for an aging relative.

I saw this in action just last week. My 87-year-old dad is currently in a rehab facility recovering from a small stroke. Because he also has dementia, he's living in a specialized dementia/Alzheimer's wing of the facility. I'd brought my teenage son for a visit -- and he in turn brought his acoustic guitar to entertain his Grandpa. Before we reached my dad's room, the nurses spied the instrument.

"A guitar! Will you play for everybody? Please?"

Before he knew it, my son was standing in the lounge, jamming in front of the entire population of the 20-bed wing. I was really proud of him (he used to resist command performances, and this was, of course, no everyday audience for a teenager).

But it's what happened next that was the real miracle: The collective mood lifted, for patients and nursing staff alike. There were broad smiles. There was rhythmic clapping, and even some enthusiastic dancing. Unresponsive residents perked up for the length of a song. The inattentive grew still and watched closely. And the collected nurses, assistants, and aides -- ordinarily pleasant but mostly harried and businesslike -- seemed to unwind before my very eyes. "Wow, that was re-energizing. I can make it to the end of my shift now," one told me.

And why not? Aside from the benefits of music therapy for people with dementia, which I've written about before, it's worth noting the effect of music on caregivers. Music is the language of the soul. It's been shown to impact mind, body, and emotions -- the same multi-pronged targets that stress attacks. That's why enjoying music is so effective, whether your being is stressed by having a disease like Alzheimer's or by taking care of someone who does (or who has some other care needs).

Music isn't a magic wand that will vanquish the circular stress of feeding and bathing and worrying about a relative. But it does seem to have the power to transform hard moments into easier ones -- and I'll take that.

Some music ideas for caregivers:

* Find music you and the person you care for both enjoy. People with dementia, for example, often respond well to music from their teens and 20s, which taps deep-set memory tracks. Experiment. You might discover you groove on big band music. But don't completely ignore your own favorites: Expose a parent to Dave Matthews or Michael Jackson, and you both might find some common ground.

*Create a "bad day playlist." Make a CD or track of nothing but your most soothing favorites. Save it for high-stress days. Help a fellow caregiver: Create and publish your personalized iMix at the iTunes Store. (Picking your songs for the playlist and arranging them can be as soothing as listening to them.)

*Sing along. Or dance. The more interactive you are with the music, the more deeply your response to it.

*Find the music your mood needs. At last month's music and medicine conference in Ireland, one of the music therapists involved pointed out how Irish music comes in three main types: the lullaby (suantraí), the music of happiness (geantraí) and the music of sadness (goltraí). These categorizations are useful.

Just as you should pause to think about what kind of food you really want when you're hungry (protein? fruit? something salty?), give some consideration to the type of tunes you need. Where do you want the music to lead you?