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10 Strategies for Using Music for Reminiscence

Music funReflecting on one’s past is a vital task of living for older adults and people approaching the end of life. When it comes to supporting reminiscence with your care recipient, music can be an especially helpful tool.

(P.S. For more strategies for facilitating reminiscence, check out this post.)

Songs provide discussion material that is endlessly rich, especially when you choose the songs and how you frame your reminiscence sessions carefully.

Check out these strategies for using music to support reminiscence:

1. Try familiar music. Maybe you already know that Betty loves Frank Sinatra. There’s a good chance that one of his recordings will spark some memories.

2. Try unfamiliar music. An excellent option after getting to know each other well, less familiar music may bring up stories you haven’t heard before and topics you’ve never discussed. Do be careful to choose music that won’t be offensive or otherwise unlistenable for your elder companion.

3. Talk about the song. Where to start a discussion? First, you might try discussing the song itself. Do they remember hearing or singing this song in the past? Does it remind them of a particular event or occasion? You may share specifics about the song that help to nurture the conversation, like when the song was written, or the fact that it won an award of some kind.

4. Talk about the artist. This works well when someone doesn’t remember a particular song but is familiar with the artist. Even better is when you have other songs by that same artist or photos of the singer available to share. 

5. Talk about the composer/songwriter. Of course, this is not always the same as the performer who made the song famous. Know about the other songs someone wrote, or whether they performed as well. There can also be fascinating back stories about how certain songs came to be written and performed by particular people, and comparing and contrasting different recordings of the same song can provide conversational material as well.

6. Talk about the lyrics. Sometimes the words of the song are more interesting and salient to a conversation than the artists who wrote or performed the song. You may choose songs to prompt discussion on a particular topic (e.g. “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” to discuss pets).

7. Compare and contrast different songs. Sometimes, choosing a few songs on the same theme makes a discussion richer (e.g. choosing a few songs on the topic of summertime). Sometimes the contrast between songs is where the discussion lies. For example, try comparing “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The words are similar, but the tone is very different.

8. Dance with the song. Non-verbal expression can be a very meaningful way to share a song. If conversation is flagging, try holding hands and moving to the music instead. This may relieve some anxiety and allow conversation to flow, or it may just be a way to communicate that you care, even in the absence of words.

9. Create art with the song. Instead of talking back and forth, you may try drawing, painting, or creating a collage while listening to the music. The art that is created may be a source of discussion material as well.

10. Write new words to the song. Even great songs can be enhanced over time, no? Try writing a new verse to a song, or changing the words of the chorus to match current circumstances. You can see an example of this technique here.

Which of these tips will you try with your care recipient? Please leave a comment below!

Looking for songs to get you started? Check out our Song Spotlights section for an ever-growing collection of songs to spark meaningful conversations in your caregiving relationships.

2 comments… add one
  • Those are all valuable ideas. Just wanted to add that as a hospice chaplain, I have often sung to patients, especially those who are nonverbal. I also encouraged their caregivers, even if they thought they did not have a good voice, to do so, because no recording can substitute for the warmth and connection of a live human voice.

    • YES! I am so happy that you sing to your patients. I do encourage family members to sing, too, and remind people that none of us are going to Carnegie Hall anytime soon, so we don’t have to sound like superstars.

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