Shining a Light on Senior Mental Health: The Power of Music During Mental Health Awareness Month

LUCID Therapeutics
May 24, 2024
10 minute read
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May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to advocate, educate, and break down stigmas surrounding mental health. While conversations about mental well-being have gained momentum, there's a demographic whose struggles often go unnoticed: seniors. As we come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Month, it's crucial to shine a light on the often overlooked mental health challenges faced by older adults.

Senior Mental Health: A Silent Struggle

In the rush of modern life, the mental health needs of seniors can easily slip under the radar. Retirement, loss of loved ones, declining physical health, and feelings of isolation can take a toll on their mental well-being. Societal norms can discourage older adults from expressing their emotions or seeking help, perpetuating the misconception that mental health issues are just a “normal” part of aging.

However, just like any other age group, seniors deserve compassion, understanding, and access to mental health resources. To empower older adults to age more healthily, changes in the healthcare system and surrounding mental health conversations need to change.

LUCID spoke with established Austin-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker Eden Davisson who provides psychotherapy and behavioral counseling to a diverse population of adults. When asked about her older adult clients, she says, “I often find that anxiety and depression among my older adults is present, but they think they shouldn't be having these symptoms, and put themselves down for it. I wish everyone knew it is normal to feel this way in their circumstances, and that feeling alone in the symptoms and talking harshly to themselves makes them more stressed and down. There are ways through, and they deserve to have access to them!”

The Current Senior Medical Landscape

While some may feel equipped and empowered to be proactive in their search for mental health resources, older adults may face increased barriers in the medical system that may prevent them from accessing care.

Reflecting on senior care in the United States, Eden says, “I think there has been a gap in services for seniors that I had been seeking for a while: one that they could take in between our sessions so that they could feel accomplished and complete daily activities that leave them saying to themselves: ‘I just did something that really took care of myself today!’ and then feel better by doing it.”

Eden continues, “Most of my elder clients find themselves in a catch 22 in accessing services to help with stress and low feelings: coordinating transportation is hard, and so is setting up and troubleshooting telehealth video therapy at times.”

According to the National Institute on Aging, inappropriate polypharmacy is defined as “the use of excessive or unnecessary medications [which] increases the risk of adverse drug effects, including falls and cognitive impairment, harmful drug interactions, and drug-disease interactions, in which a medication prescribed to treat one condition worsens another or causes a new one.”

Older folks living with dementia or Alzheimer’s are additionally at risk for polypharmacy. We’ve heard from senior patients both first hand and anecdotally that their experiences with medication have often left them discouraged and overwhelmed with negative side effects, ultimately due to the lack of personalization in their mental health care. 

Seniors and their loved ones deserve to know that they have other safer, yet still effective, options when it comes to addressing their mental health.

The Healing Power of Music

One powerful tool in addressing mental health symptoms, regardless of age, is music. Music has a profound impact on the human mind and body, capable of alleviating stress, anxiety, and depression. For seniors, especially those struggling with memory loss or cognitive decline, music can serve as a therapeutic intervention.

Studies have shown that listening to familiar songs can stimulate memories, evoke emotions, and improve overall mood for those living with Alzheimer’s. Additionally, engaging in music activities such as singing, playing instruments, or participating in music therapy sessions can enhance cognitive function, reduce feelings of loneliness, and promote a sense of connection. 

We were called back to this Reddit thread that dives into the “Alive Inside” documentary, which gave senior residents access to iPods with familiar music on them. Residents were shown dancing, singing and brightening up after hearing the tunes when previously they were unable to connect with anything else. These comments, among many others, illuminate how music has profoundly impacted seniors living with dementia. 

Music’s ability to light up every part of the brain, evoke emotional responses, and trigger a sense of nostalgia should not be overlooked, rather harnessed for meaningful impact. As user saucisse puts it, “This is going to become critical as the Boomer population ages; keeping an aging population healthy and mentally acute requires constant engagement, and music can be incredibly valuable in achieving that.” 

Music is at the core of the LUCID Therapeutics mission. CTO and Co-Founder Aaron Labbé explains, “Music roots itself in some of the deepest parts of our consciousness. The right song at the right time can act on complex emotions that enable us to cope, heal and recall memories that remind us who we are in even the most difficult moments in our lives. At LUCID our mission is to turn music into medicine, but to be specific, we are simply unlocking and facilitating the naturally occurring magic of music’s impact on our health and bringing it to as many people as possible.”

Incorporating Music into Senior Care

Recognizing the therapeutic benefits of music, many senior care facilities and community organizations are integrating music programs into their services. However, with staffing shortages amongst other problems arising in U.S. nursing homes, music programs in senior care facilities may be forgotten. 

More and more people are acknowledging and championing the power of music, not only for their older loved ones but also for themselves. These Reddit comments demonstrate a knowing that music can elicit emotional and cognitive responses that may be crucial down the line. 

Having a playlist of “favorite music” may be regular practice for some, but older adults may have more trouble recalling memorable tunes from earlier in their life. Familiar music from the 50s, 60s, 70s, can have the potential to address neuropsychiatric symptoms of an older adult living with mental health struggles or dementia, but how can their loved ones or caregivers know exactly which songs to play?

Zach McMahon, CEO of LUCID Therapeutics, has an answer. He says, "Resonance Rx is designed to first understand what an older adult's favorite music may be, maybe the caregiver knows, maybe they're guessing. The use of our emotional AI then is "sitting in" on the music listening sessions to evaluate in real-time what the listener is enjoying, and updating those initial preferences, which may have been a best guess, to a ground truth. This is the music making grandpa happy, and if that's working, this other music might work too.”

Personalization of the playlist is important, too. Zach adds, "when designing Resonance Rx, we scanned the literature and found many high quality studies evaluating music's impact on older adults with dementia. We consistently see positive improvements in anxiety and agitation in these studies, but the key thing is, the music must be personalized. We hope to make that process both easier for caregivers and more accurate, so more people can benefit more.”

On how Resonance Rx has impacted her senior patients, Eden says, “The Resonance Rx program had surprising results for my clients. They liked it that the bi-neural beats behind the music was having a passive positive effect on their stress and mood, which was not so surprising. But then the use of music in their spare time became more meaningfully useful for them~ even repeating song lyrics in times of stress became a new tool. The experience of the Resonance Rx program put them back in contact with positive memories that were musical from the past: memories of dancing, family connecting, and just enjoying their own taste's again. I also was not expecting them to learn so much about cognitive behavior therapy and use of mindfulness in the present moment instead of worries by using the podcast option. They really really liked and connected with the person behind the voice in the soothing short lessons, and then loved it so much they repeated these and THAT repetition by choice led to the knowledge about helpful self talk and mindfulness to sink in finally. I am so grateful for the truly cathartic experiences they are having in their lives now.”

As we reflect on the significance of Mental Health Awareness Month, let's remember that the journey to mental wellness is one we must walk together, embracing compassion, understanding, and the transformative power of music.