Three ways singing can be used in long-term care

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Staff at long-term care homes can use singing, or even humming, to achieve specific outcomes with residents. Singing or humming can help someone who is in distress to calm, can engage them, and can create a feeling of connectedness.

By Sarah Pearson

Singing can play a valuable role in Long Term Care. A staple of basic wellbeing, singing is a human activity that enhances physical health, increases socialization, reduces stress, improves circulation, and releases feel-good hormones. If that weren’t enough, singing also happens to support brain health for people with dementia.

Contrary to popular belief, no one needs to be an expert singer to use singing as a tool in long-term care. We just need to have the willingness to take a deep breath and try something new.

Here are three ways that care providers in LTC can use singing to create meaningful relationships with residents.

  • Hum with a person who is distressed: humming is a natural way to connect to the breath, and create a calmer environment. It can cue someone in distress to calm down. For people who are shy or intimidated to sing, humming can feel like an easier place to start. It’s quiet and less exposed than regular singing, and there’s no risk of “getting the words wrong.” The next time a resident appears anxious or in distress, come alongside them, and start humming the melody to something you find consoling. Perhaps it’s the tune to “You Are My Sunshine,” or maybe it’s an old AC/DC melody. Try humming it slowly, and with the intention of letting the person know you’re there for them. Notice how the space around you may change, how the resident may change, and how you may feel differently.
  • Sing familiar songs: singing involves both hemispheres of the brain, which is why people who have neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia may not be able to say their own name, but they can sing all the words to “Over The Rainbow.” Singing familiar songs with residents can connect them to their memories, and engage them in a social activity. For folks living with advanced dementia, singing familiar songs may be one of the few remaining gateways into their identities.
  • Encourage group sing-alongs: there’s nothing quite like group singing for improving quality of life, feeling connected to others, and boosting overall morale. Encourage group singing whenever possible with residents. Many professional musicians and music therapists will offer customized sing-along programs for older adults. Digital group singing programs for memory care, such as the Pathways Singing Program, can offer a group singing experience when a live facilitator isn’t available.

One of the main reasons we don’t see as much singing as is needed in most nursing homes is because of staff shyness or insecurity. Cultural attitudes about singing have made many people afraid of “getting it wrong” or sounding bad. The fact is, singing is a natural human impulse. It’s something that infants do for self-soothing, and that other mammals use for communication. Singing is a whole-self, holistic action. When we sing, our body, breath and spirit all work together. The voice is a direct result of the breath, musculature and overall mental and emotional state of a person at any given moment. If we are feeling nervous or threatened, the muscles that respond to fear will constrict and so too will the voice. When we feel impulsively joyous, our breath will dance and our voices will sing free.

Singing can and should be used in LTC, as much as possible. It’s something any staff member can initiate. The next time you or someone around you says, “I can’t sing,” consider where that belief is coming from. And then challenge it. It’s a belief worth challenging.

Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in end-of-life care, a songwriter and professional musician, and is program development coordinator for the Room 217 Foundation.

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