The Magic of Music in the Chaos of Long-Term Care

guest article by Donna K. Woodward, CNA

Being a new CNA is challenging. Yes, in training I learned how to make a hospital bed with a mannequin in it. To wash my hands according to procedure. To transfer fellow trainees with a gait belt. But now that I'm in the unit, needing to transfer a dear little wheelchair-bound lady who can no longer speak and who, while petite, is a dead weight when I try to lift her. And she is contracted. Her arms remain tight at her side as I try to undress her. Who is more distressed, 'Goldie" or I?

Goldie, in her mid-90's, is still a beautiful-looking woman with twinkly eyes and a smile that glows. So as I work with her I sing "Glow little glow-worm, glow and glimmer" to her. (Are the Mills Brothers spinning their graves?) I'm not sure Goldie gets the words at this point, but I'm laughing as I sing and she laughs back. She relaxes. I open my arms wide to invite a hug and Goldie opens hers! Now I can get her blouse off. Mission accomplished! I don't know what made me sing to Goldie that first time, except that she was such a sparkly person that being with her made me happy. My singing is not a pretty sight. But as one musician said to me, "They don't care what you sound like if you love them."

Soon I was singing to all my residents as I did ADLs (Activities of Daily Living: bathing, dressing, toileting, eating). Sometimes a resident would sing along. Yes, this did mean that it took me longer than it took other aides. One of my caregiver-mentors would say to me, "We don't have time to talk to the residents. We don't have time to sing to them." But I persisted (quietly) and began to carry my iPod nano and a small wireless speaker with me. Now we had hundreds of songs, sung by the voices these residents might recognize: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, The Mills Brothers, Judy Garland, etc. One morning as I brought residents to the dining room for breakfast I played "Oh What a Beautiful Morning." Soon the room was singing! And smiling. In time other aides began asking, "Do you have your music with you today?" For one thing, I think they liked some of this old music. And they saw residents often became calmer and more cooperative when they felt 'sunny.' Music does that, connecting us to each other and to our memories.

As my IPOD played the "Marine Hymn" or "Anchors Aweigh," veterans walked to the dining room with new determination. Accompanied by a waltz, a resident with unsteady legs could be coaxed to move more confidently. Sometimes we can engage a resident with a song we know she enjoys, singing together as we walk to the toilet. Because we're in the midst of something pleasant, a resident might hardly notice that an ADL she usually resists is about to happen.

Some residents can no longer speak; they might no longer understand language. The saddest reality is that some can no longer hear. (Even then, rhythms might be felt.) Not every musical event works every time with every resident. Nevertheless, with many residents, music can be magical in its effect. Music has a profound positive effect so often that it seems crazy not to try it.

When I am old and grey and full of sleep . . . (thank you Mr. Yeats), they can take my food, they can have even my books. But I want my music.


More about Donna: I was the family caregiver for an uncle who developed dementia.  When my uncle moved to a memory support home, I found that I loved interacting with the residents.  My uncle loved Lawrence Welk and one day I played a Welk dvd for the group.  Residents began tapping their feet and singing along.  Some who no longer spoke, sang a few words!  I thought, “I want to be a minstrel in dementia-care homes.”  Back to school I went, and at age 67 became a CNA—and a minstrel.  Over the years I’ve had several careers and many jobs; none was as transformative as this work.  My goal is to help improve the quality of life of those who live and work in long-term care homes. Donna lives in Havertown, PA. Prior to retirement Donna also volunteered in a nursing home in Philadelphia and served as a hospice volunteer in a LTC home for persons with life-long physical and cognitive disabilities.