Using music to help fight loneliness in long-term care

Isolation can cause serious health issues for seniors. One Ontario non-profit has developed an approach to combat the problem through music — and it’s striking a chord with long-term-care residents
By Dylan Klempner - Published on Feb 11, 2019
Health-care organizations, hospitals, and elder-care centres in Ontario have increasingly been providing their patients and residents with music. (



In the summer of 2017, staff at the Fenelon Court Long Term Care Centre, in Fenelon Falls, an hour away from Peterborough, made a surprising discovery about a 99-year-old resident who had resisted leaving the dining room after meals. When ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” started playing on the loudspeakers, she spontaneously stood up.

The insight allowed staff to help ease the resident’s transition back to her room. “We would hold her hand, and we could dance her out of the dining room,” says Sharon Yeo, the centre’s recreation manager and volunteer coordinator.

Health-care organizations, hospitals, and elder-care centres have increasingly been providing their patients and residents with music. Research appears to confirm its benefits, but there is little consensus in the medical community on how best to use it in clinical settings. And as standards and recommendations are lacking in Ontario — and around the world — many patients and caregivers who may benefit are being left out.

A group of researchers in Ontario is working to change that. In February 2017, the Room 217 Foundation, a non-profit based in Port Perry that helps health-care organizations integrate music into their care communities, launched a pilot program that aimed to use music to reduce levels of isolation and loneliness among long-term care residents — issues that can have serious physical and mental-health effects.

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Staff at long-term care homes in Port Perry, Beaverton, and Fenelon Falls were introduced to the organization’s 10 domains of music care — which include music therapy, delivered by mental-health professionals; and community music, delivered by amateur and professional musicians — and asked to choose the ones that would best suit their centre’s approach.

The nine-week study produced positive results: participating residents reported a significant decrease in loneliness.

Now, thanks to a two-year $181,400 provincial impact grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the team is expanding the initiative to 24 urban sites. In April 2018, the program was introduced at six facilities in Hamilton, and by the end of February, it will be offered in 12 Toronto care homes. Six more homes in Kitchener and Waterloo will follow in September 2019.

The 10-domains framework grew out of a 2014 study, run by Room 217, Bridgepoint Active Healthcare, and the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Research Collaboratory, that explored “how music could be optimized in complex rehabilitation and continuing care environments.”

Michelle Nelson, the lead researcher of the project at Bridgepoint, says that hospitals can lack the kinds of artistic sensory stimulation we get in our normal lives. “Music is everywhere,” she says. “It’s in the mall. It’s in the grocery store. It’s on the radio in the car.”

During a performance for participants, Nelson saw a man put his arm around his wife’s wheelchair. “I actually had this moment when I realized that they’re not here anymore as a patient and her husband,” she says. “This performance gave them the opportunity to express their normal social role and be together in a way that’s not about her health-care needs — it’s actually about their well-being.”

At Fenelon Court, all residents now have their own sets of headphones. They attend musical performances by visiting musicians. Recreation staff use music during one-on-one consultations. And staff members play requests over loudspeakers in common areas.

Fenelon Court’s 67 residents — up to three-quarters of whom suffer from some form of dementia — are also encouraged to participate in talent shows and musical performances. Yeo, who describes herself as “non-musical,” started a bell choir for residents with help from the music therapist.

One bell-choir member, who Yeo says normally shows little emotion, waits in anticipation to ring out her C-note during performances. Her family “will try to time their visits around the bell choir so they can experience this with their mom.”

Yeo says music brings “moments of joy” to residents, family, and staff. “Nobody wants to live in a nursing home,” she says. “Nobody wants to move their mom here or their dad here, or their spouse. So when they can witness that spouse having some joy, it gives them joy.”

Dylan Klempner is a journalist and visual artist based in Gainesville, Florida. He is currently a Munk fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto.

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