What NOT To Do With Karaoke CDs in Senior Living Communities (And What To Do Instead)

In my work as a music therapist in senior living communities – skilled nursing, assisted living, independent living, and the like – I encounter a lot of other people who bring music to elders. This is great! Many people love musical entertainment, and even just having someone play or sing a bunch of songs can be a great way to encourage social interaction among residents.

I do have a pet peeve, though: hired entertainers who do nothing more than bring in a karaoke machine and a microphone, to croon along to canned recordings.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I know that many residents enjoy these performances, and I’m sure the musicians’ hearts are in the right place. I’m willing to bet, though, that your entertainment budget is limited, and when it comes to providing quality music experiences with limited resources, you should consider a few other options.

(Mostly) Free Entertainment Resources

Invite student musicians. You know I love intergenerational activities. Young musicians need a chance to get in front of an audience, and many seniors love to provide encouragement to young artists. It’s a win-win situation. Think about contacting music teachers you know or your local music stores (like Meyer Music, if you’re in Kansas City) to offer your “recital space.” Offer to print up the programs for the special performance, then cheer on the young performers and invite them to come back to visit soon!

Recruit community volunteer musicians. Believe it or not, there are many musicians available who just want to play and share their music with others in their spare time. The catch is that you have to treat your volunteers like GOLD. Put them on the schedule whenever they’re available, even if it’s on a Saturday morning, and make sure you have an audience there for them when they show up. Be an enthusiastic member of the audience, too, and make sure you have a nice thank you note (preferably hand-made) to give your honored guests when they are finished. Believe me, if you follow these steps, your volunteer musicians will want to come back.

Encourage resident and staff participation in music-making. If you have a karaoke machine, the residents and staff members should share in the fun, not watch someone else perform. The staff at Bickford of Overland Park use their karaoke machine beautifully – they fill time before meals and between more structured activities with a couple of songs, led by the activity director or one of the nurses.

Talent shows are also a perennial favorite and still worth the effort, in my opinion. I once saw a talent show at an assisted living community where one of the CNAs, a native of Jamaica, performed a rap for the audience of mostly white, upper-class residents. They loved it! You can’t beat this kind of event for community building among staff and residents.

Use Your Entertainment Budget Wisely

Hire the best musicians for your most special events. When hiring entertainers, please choose quality over quantity. I think it’s much better to hire one amazing musician or band every three months for a big party than a mediocre musician every month for the birthday party. If you’re going to pay someone to perform, you should expect a certain level of professionalism and musicianship. My accordion-playing friend Jane Christison (AKA Janie Next Door) is one of these top-notch entertainers – I’d definitely recommend hiring her to play for one of your most special events.

Buy recorded music. I’m a huge proponent of building a community’s digital music library. These days, you can download the exact song or two that you want from Amazon or iTunes, to fit the theme of your party or activity. Keep your library organized and continue building over time, and pretty soon you’ll have a nice archive to pull from for a whole range of activities.

Hire a Music Therapist

I wrote a series a while back on when to hire a music therapist in long-term care (and when NOT to hire one!) Music therapists should not be your go-to source for entertainment, but they are your best resource in putting together music programming that reaches the most residents at their level of need and interest. Here’s where the music therapist will be your best resource:

For residents with mental health concerns. Those seniors who are grieving over a loss, dealing with depression or anxiety, or struggling with the transition to a new home may especially benefit from music therapy. Music therapists know how to reach and relate to these folks on a different level than you would expect from a volunteer or entertainer.

For residents with a strong musical background. Residents that have a long history playing or performing music may really enjoy interacting with a fellow musician in the context of a music therapy relationship rather than listening to a sub-par performance or participating in lower-level music-making groups. I have learned a lot from seasoned performers in music therapy, and they have benefited from being in the role of authority and expertise. (Of course, trained musicians LOVE high-quality performances, so make sure those happen, too!)

For the residents that are hardest to reach. People that cannot communicate easily due to aphasia or dementia, people who get agitated or aggressive around peers, people who are very reluctant to get out of their rooms for community-wide activities – these are folks that also can benefit greatly from interaction with a music therapist.

I hope this all gives you a sense of how to spend your entertainment budget wisely. What have been the successful events in your community? Which ones have not worked so well? Let us all know in the comments section below!]]>


  1. JoAnn Jordan (@JordanEM) on September 19, 2012 at 8:28 am

    Spot on comments in my book, Rachelle. I would add contacting some of the religious groups in your area. Some have outstanding programs with a lot of variety in the types of music they provide. They can be a wonderful resource.

    Pay attention to street musicians during community events. If they are high quality, ask for their business card. You might get something unique this way. Even in rural Kansas there are some professionals and talented students sharing their abilities at these events.

    • soundscapemusictherapy on September 19, 2012 at 9:56 am

      Those are great suggestions, JoAnn!

  2. Kat Fulton on September 19, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I love your specificity here. This is a great guide for any activities director to follow!

    • soundscapemusictherapy on September 19, 2012 at 10:46 am

      Thanks, Kat!

  3. redrose856 on September 20, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    nice recommendations!

  4. Ann Becker-Schutte (@DrBeckerSchutte) on September 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm


    When I read your blog, I often feel like I am getting a 101 course in the best ways to use music for support and treatment. It’s great to get that kind of education, and you’re providing a wonderful service to your community!


    • soundscapemusictherapy on October 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm

      Thank you so much, Ann! I do hope that our community can use this information well.

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