How adding music can make activities more meaningful for people

Sarah-Kaye Page

Training advisor with ETC Training and a Dementia Specialist


What are meaningful engagement activities?

A meaningful engagement activity can be any activity that has meaning for the people involved. If people find meaning in a task, they are more likely to be engaged, find enjoyment, and chose to repeat the task more often. We all enjoy our different hobbies and older people receiving care are no different. The only difference is that there may need to be someone else on hand to facilitate the activity or to motivate the client or resident to participate. There are many kinds of activities that can be offered to those we care for. These can include cooking, animal therapy, art, crafts, social outings, gardening, and music. Each of these can be adapted for the individual no matter what physical or cognitive barriers may present to make their engagement meaningful and enjoyable. The more a person smiles and has fun, the better their quality of life. A goal for those of us in the caring industry.

Below is some information I have gathered in my years of work in the aged and disability industry as a personal care worker, lifestyle coordinator, researcher, and now a trainer for the industry. This information is designed to show staff and family members that there are many ways to improve the lives of those we support if we are willing to think outside the box.

Music activities

Using music to calm, relax, encourage, support, or assist with bringing back wonderful memories is not new. However, understanding that musical activities are not just about putting a random CD on during lunch is important, as this could cause more harm than good. The activities offered here with their accompanying explanations are designed to enrich, enhance, and increase meaningful engagement with and between your clients or residents every day.

What music activities may achieve

Music holds a very special place in our hearts and is central at some of the most emotional times of our lives - weddings, births, our teenage years, new relationships, break ups. It sets the tone for our self-expression and connection with others. The desired outcome from an activity relating to music is engagement with others and a connection or memory with music. It can be a conversation about our favourite songs, the music itself, playing it, listening to it, dancing, singing, a choir, or just a little humming while doing the chores. This personal connection to music makes us engage with it and find enjoyment, reminiscences, and a sense of escape from our current moment. This means that the music needs to be personalised for the individual. For example, the music we grew up listening to between the ages of 15 and 25 holds some of the most emotional connections. For some people that is Elvis or the Beatles. For others, it is Britney Spears or John Farnham. Some people prefer instrumental while others prefer singing. The best way to find out what a person enjoys is to ask them or their family. Don’t assume that everyone from a certain era likes the same music.

Always check people’s level of enjoyment and engagement with an activity by watching them and checking for a smile, laugh, singing, dancing, clapping, foot tapping, or moving of the body to the music. These are all physical signs of engagement with or enjoyment of music. Tears are also common when experiencing music that is emotionally connected to us. This is not always a bad thing for people to experience. Having a conversation about why someone is experiencing emotion is a great way to get to know a resident and build rapport with them.

Different musical ideas to try

Just as there are different kinds of music, there are also many ways that musical activities can be used. These may be either formally organised (concerts, choirs, group sing-a-longs with the lifestyle department) or opportunities can be created on the spot by all workers within the facility during the care and support provided every day. This could involve:

  • Putting on a radio (with a preferred station) in a room
  • Organizing/singing in a choir
  • Having/hosting a concert
  • Having/giving dance lessons
  • Discussing previous concerts/musicians
  • Playing/listening to instruments
  • Sing-a-longs
  • Staff-led songs
  • Spontaneous singing with other activities (word games)
  • Exploring favourite songs
  • Wedding songs
  • Funny songs
  • Songs of a generation
  • Wartime songs
  • Chats about our favourite songs or artists
  • Looking at album covers/old records
  • Humming during personal care

Adjusting for different abilities

Each person has different preferences related to music, the same as everyone has different care and support needs. These must be taken into consideration when providing all activities to the residents to ensure that the activity is engaging and provides the best outcome for the resident. Doing this ensures the activity is enjoyable so that residents choose to repeat the activity again, regularly maintaining engagement and social interaction. Consider:

  • Making the music louder or offering headphones for those hard of hearing
  • Ensuring words to songs are printed out in a big font for the visually impaired
  • Including videos or moving pictures to go with the songs to keep up engagement
  • For those who have communication issues, asking family for preferences
  • For those unable to dance, getting to their level and assisting where possible
  • For those who cannot move, tapping on their hand or foot can have a great effect

Other considerations include not making the session too long, ensuring a variety of music is played to ensure everyone has fun, and remembering to check for individual preferences for the type and variety of music, band, or artist.

Sometimes, people experiencing music “come alive” or move in a way they could not do without music. This is because the brain processes music in a different place and speed to the sound of voices talking. This can be a joy to witness and there are many videos on the internet about this. Not everyone experiences these significant changes, however, the smile and connection to the past that everyone does feel are worth going the extra mile for this activity.

Thank you for reading my blog today. If there are further questions you may have regarding this, please feel free to contact me at Remember: for an engagement activity to work, it needs to be meaningful for the individual. Adjusting what we do and how we do it increases the effective outcome and makes everyone’s lives better.

*The views and opinions expressed in Knowledge Blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of ARIIA, Flinders University and/or the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.


About the Author

Sarah-Kaye Page: M. Dementia, B. Dem Care, Dip. Leisure & Health, Cert. IV Training & Assessing, Cert. III Individual Support (Ageing/Disability). 

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In a 2022 survey, the aged care workforce nominated ‘meaningful lifestyle activities’ as a priority topic for the sector. The Knowledge and Implementation Hub has bought together the research evidence and created short easy-to-read summaries of the research evidence about meaningful lifestyle activities in aged care.