Plan carefully when using music listening devices with adults who have dementia

Baycrest publishes free guidelines for creating effective music listening opportunities
for cognitively-impaired older adults

Toronto, Canada – With the popularity of digital music and personal listening devices, Baycrest Health Sciences has published a free online educational resource to help professional and family caregivers think about how to use those devices and music playlists in the most appropriate way with individuals who have dementia.    

“Creating Effective Music Listening Opportunities” is available to view and download at

thinkstock (2)Connecting cognitively-frail adults to their favorite music is not as simple as putting headphones on them, popping a CD into a music player, piping music through the hallways of a nursing home, or uploading a playlist onto a personal listening device, according to music therapists at Baycrest, one of Canada’s largest seniors’ care facilities and a global leader in innovations in aging and brain health.

With personal listening devices in the music-loving youth market now migrating to the aging adult market – including their use in long term care facilities for managing dementia-related agitation and aggression – Baycrest music therapists saw a need for greater education and awareness around the most appropriate ways for using music listening with frail elders, whether they live at home or in a health care or long-term care facility. 

“People have good intentions, but no one is acknowledging that there are possible negative consequences if music listening is not used properly with vulnerable adults,” says Chrissy Pearson, an accredited music therapist at Baycrest and the Music Therapy Centre. Pearson has been delivering music therapy to long-term care homes, group homes, hospital acute care, public schools and other settings since 2002.

“We have to be careful that music listening devices are not used as a distraction tool where the person with dementia is left unattended for periods of time. Leaving a person with dementia alone with their music may seem like a great idea – they are occupied with their music! However, this may create both physical and emotional safety concerns,” says Pearson.

The Baycrest guidelines provide the public with information on how to use a personalized playlist with cognitively frail older adults, how to create effective playlists, and how to respond to deep emotions that could result from music listening.

Sheila Munk and her mom, Sylvia Shapiro, 96, listen to music together at Baycrest’s Apotex Centre, Jewish Home for the Aged.

Sheila Munk and her mom, Sylvia Shapiro, 96, listen to music together at Baycrest’s Apotex Centre, Jewish Home for the Aged.

“The overarching goal of using music with older adults, and especially those with dementia, is to help them connect with memories, emotions and the people and world around them,” adds Dr. Amy Clements-Cortes, senior music therapist and practice advisor at Baycrest, assistant professor at the University of Toronto, and president of the World Federation of Music Therapy.


The guidelines have been well received by various music therapy governing bodies and educational organizations in Canada and abroad, including the Canadian Association for Music Therapy, the American Association of Music Therapy, the World Federation of Music Therapy, the Music and Health Research Collaboratory, and  Arts Health Network Canada. 

“This excellent resource provides a useful tool for both loved ones and health professionals in understanding the benefits, risks and powerful potential of music listening. The brochure gives practical ideas and strategies for safely using music listening with vulnerable people,” says Adrienne Pringle, president of the Canadian Association for Music Therapy.

The following tips are taken from Creating Effective Music Listening Opportunities:

  • It’s important that individuals with dementia be monitored while they are listening to music delivered through a personal listening device, such as headphones. They should not be left alone.

  • Headphones should be used with caution as they create a barrier between the individual using them and their caregiver. Ideally, if you are listening to the music together and able to talk to the individual, it is much easier to share in the moment and to know what music he/she is or is not reacting to.

  • Small ear buds are not recommended. Use either over-ear headphones or stetoclip headphones. Behind-the-ear type hearing aids should be removed before headphones are used. Deep fitting hearing aids should not give feedback and are appropriate to leave in.

  • Regarding volume, loud and soft are different for each person. If an individual cannot tell you when the music is too loud or too soft, look for signs on his/her face.

  • Even favorite music can sometimes evoke difficult emotional responses, such as sadness, and caregivers need to be mindful of this.

  • If music listening is overused, individuals may become immune to the positive effect.

About Baycrest Health Sciences
Baycrest Health Sciences is a global leader in geriatric residential living, healthcare, research, innovation and education, with a special focus on brain health and aging. As an academic health sciences centre fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest provides an exemplary care experience for aging clients combined with an extensive clinical training program for students and the Rotman Research Institute, one of the world’s leaders in cognitive neuroscience. Through its commercial and consulting arms, Baycrest is marketing its sought-after expertise and innovation to other healthcare organizations and long-term care homes, both in Canada and internationally.

For more information on this press release, please contact:

Kelly Connelly
Senior Media Officer
Baycrest Health Sciences