Retired & Bored? Seniors Can Benefit From Playing Music Too

Oct 8, 2014

In keeping with recent topics, this weeks we’re going to take a short look at some of the benefits of a musical eduction for those in their twilight years: the elderly. There are many unique and astounding benefits for seniors to gain through learning a musical instrument. Following a long life of busy work, the slow pace of a life in retirement might leave many longing for something to do, and picking up a musical instrument is a fantastic hobby that can provide a lot more advantages than just simply passing the time.

While playing an instrument has many side and fringe benefits, a major benefit that cannot be over looked is that it helps defeat boredom. For many retired folks, boredom, loneliness, and general ennui can be a reality of every day life. If left alone, this can become a much more serious issue for older people than it might seem at first. This kind of long term boredom or tedium can lead to restlessness, depression, loneliness, a negative outlook on life, and in severe cases physical deterioration. Without something to break the monotony, these somewhat mild conditions can become aggravated, progress into severe mental and physical concerns, and even complicate pre existing conditions.

Of course, defeating boredom is not the only benefit to seniors from learning to play an instrument. As is the case with countless seniors who live alone, feelings of loneliness and melancholy can be common and pervasive. Learning to play can help keep those feelings at bay. Genres like jazz or the blues were first created to help both songwriters and audiences to beat back those negative feelings. These kinds of feelings may be commonplace, but wallowing in them is certainly not recommended. The very process of learning every aspect of music and playing your instrument of choice is already an amazingly effective weapon against negative emotions. Once skills are learned, and can be put to good use in expressing one’s self emotionally, spiritually, and creatively, there follows a sense of fulfilment and achievement that dispels feelings of sadness and loss.

As amazing as the emotional benefits of music lessons for seniors are, some of the physical ramifications can be even more astounding. One of the all too real facts of ageing is that we simply begin to lose physical attributes we counted on in our youth. Things like sharp hearing, clear eyesight, and accurate coordination have a tendency to fade and fail over time. That being said, like training your muscles at the gym, we can use music to help keep these senses better fine tuned later in life. The first sense that fades is hearing. Even by the time you reach your early twenties you do not have the same hearing range that you had in high school. Learning to differentiate between notes helps the brain to form new connections in the areas responsible for processing auditory stimuli. Basically your brain learns new ways to process sounds. This amounts to clearer general hearing later in life, and even an improvement in picking out specific sounds, like a single voice in a crowded room.

Similar to hearing, eyesight is another of our vital senses that is ravaged by time. But as the old adage goes “use it, or lose it.” Learning to read music can have a similar effect on the visual part of the brain as playing has on the auditory portions. Eyesight is a slightly more complex system than hearing, but using your senses for a new skill will always improve your abilities.

Another deficit that comes with age is a loss of coordination. Again, the learning of a new skill, especially picking up an instrument, can help with this as well. Concerns of joint pain and arthritis aside, learning where your fingers belong to produce the appropriate note, the repetition through practice, and the eventual muscle memory gained all work towards not only rebuilding coordination, but helping to maintain it much later in life.

However, probably the most substantial benefit of music to the elderly is its possible ability to stave off symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Research has already shown that keeping the brain active, such as by speaking two languages or playing an instrument, can hold back dementia symptoms by as much as five years. That is five extra years of functioning at the end of their lifespan. But how would an engaged brain help fight dementia? The basic idea is that brain stimulation may fight against brain changes that occur due to age and cognitive decline, by creating new connections and essentially working around problem areas, allowing a person to function longer. Playing music is an ideal way to keep that brain of yours engaged, especially once you have reached an advanced age. When other, more strenuous activities become too difficult, playing music still engages the brain across several areas, including a physical component. While the research into music’s effects on the brain later in life, especially when it comes to things like Alzheimer’s, is still in its infancy, the early findings are spectacular.

There is, of course, one final benefit I’d like to mention. And it is a benefit that we have discussed for every age group; the social aspect of learning to play. Kids need friends, and it can be easy for them, all they need is to be in the same room as one another. Adults need friends, but it can be more difficult to make them; personal prejudices crop up, it’s much easier to become irritated with little things, etc., but a common interest in music can be that first step. But perhaps the age group that can most benefit from the social aspect of music are seniors. Everyone wants to feel like they belong, and this sense of belonging can be quite strong in the older generation. Music can become something for a group of like-minded seniors to gather around to form strong community bonds. Being part of a group of musicians or even just enthusiasts brings a strong sense of belonging and improves the quality of life. And isn’t that what retirement is really all about? Revelling in the joys of community, family, and the quality of life.

To many, learning to play an instrument is an activity for the young alone. Clearly this is not the case. Everyone, from every walk of life, at any time in their life, can benefit from an education in music. The benefits can vary wildly depending on where you are in your life when you decide to pursue this interest, but there are literally no downsides. As with most things in life, you get what you put in, and in this case, you get a healthier and more balanced emotional and physical state of being, with the potential to remain healthy well into your retirement years.