Counseling for Older Adults

Recognizing the Mental Health Needs of Older Adults

Many of the older clients I encounter say that “growing old isn’t for the faint of heart.” From the stories they share, I can understand why. It’s hard to fully anticipate how our bodies and minds will change as we get older. Yet, it can be easy to overlook the impact of older adult mental health.

An older man and woman are sitting on a bench thinking about their life together

We all know as we journey through the years some degree of loss is inevitable. As we get older, each of us is bound to experience the losses of:

  • Significant relationships
  • Physical or cognitive abilities
  • Independence
  • Certain roles and identities

Indeed, feelings of loss may begin to feel like the uncomfortable new normal. Adapting to–and making peace with–the changes that come with aging can be challenging. It becomes even harder if you have health conditions that make it difficult to do things and communicate with others.

The good news is, though, that old age can be a time for profound growth. The process of aging invites a person to:

  • Rediscover who they are
  • Find new ways of making meaning and identifying life purpose
  • Grow spiritually or transpersonally

Caregivers of Older Adults Face Mental Health Challenges, Too

Caregivers of older adults face their own unique challenges. Emotions that they can often feel include guilt, anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, or grief. The risk of burnout is understandably high.

In caring for another who is suffering or in decline, caregivers may struggle with:

  • The change in the relationship: new roles, different dynamics
  • The physical and emotional demands of providing care
  • Managing other family conflicts that may arise
  • Financial concerns

Yet at the same time, caregiving provides its own opportunities for growth. Caregivers can learn a lot about themselves through the process of providing care to a loved one. Caregivers may grow in ways they’d never imagined if they’re able to get the mental health support they need.

If any of these situations sounds like yours, know that you are not alone. While some amount of decline is inevitable, there are also always choices before us that will allow for growth. Much of this growth is internal, personal, and transpersonal. These are areas ripe with potential as you get older.

Healthy, engaging, non-pharmacological ways of coping with the mental health aspects of aging exist. Music therapy is one of them. Music therapy can address not only those areas of aging that are ripe for growth but the physical and cognitive aspects as well. Older adult mental health can be improved greatly through music therapy.

Ways That Music Therapy Can Enhance Older Adult Mental Health

An older man playing the guitar enhances his mental health through music therapy

Below are some vignettes highlighting my therapeutic work with older adults. Each one illustrates a different aspect of aging. They are composites of past clients, but not any one particular client. These descriptions are to show you the ways that I’ve been able to help enhance the mental health and well-being of older adults.

Healthy Aging and Life Transitions

A Client Who Retired Recently

A recently retired client was struggling with their identity and the choices made in life. Mortality and concern about the direction their elder years would take were also voiced.

Together, we engaged in musical life review. This involved selecting meaningful songs from different phases of their life. After each song, we’d talk about the life circumstances of that time and the gifts that those experiences brought. This helped them to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for what they’d accomplished. A renewed confidence in facing elderhood was instilled.

When the client’s thoughts were getting too “heady”, we’d switch to vocalizing. These vocalizations involved relevant phrases or toning a single vowel on a single pitch. These experiences were helpful in getting them to connect with their feelings. As well, it helped them grieve the paths in life they didn’t take. Vocalizing allowed them to connect with who they are. While at the same time they were able to recognize the ways in which they could continue to contribute and give back to others.

Adults with Memory or Cognitive Impairment

A non-verbal client in the late stages of dementia

Thanks to client’s family members, I knew of some few songs that I thought they’d respond to in some way. Taking into account their sensory needs, I was careful to position myself in such a way that ensured that I could be seen and heard. As I’d sing familiar gospel songs, the client would appear to smile, tap their foot or fingers to the beat, or mouth along to the words.

During one session which was also attended by family, I began singing a song I knew the client enjoyed. Soon after I started, the client began singing along. What’s more, the client was able to share a brief relevant memory after we finished singing. This was incredibly moving and meaningful for the family.


WWII Veteran in the Late Stages of COPD

Due to the realities of end-of-life care, every session was different. Frequently I’d sing the songs that he wanted to hear from the War era. Since speaking was difficult for him, I’d provide him with different ways of choosing songs so that he could easily choose.

When he was appearing to become anxious, I’d entrain the music with his breathing and watch for his response. During these times, he’d appear to become more relaxed. His breathing would deepen. At times he’d grow tearful.

Still, other times when he was more energized, I’d play recordings of the Big Band songs he requested. During these times, he’d smile and tap his toes. Sometimes he had enough energy to verbalize his experience and share his memories.

“Tell Me More About Your Services”

I understand that you may still have some questions about how the counseling services I offer could help you. Here are some questions I’m frequently asked about my mental health work with older adults:

Logistics About Therapy

How often would we meet, and how much does it cost?

The length of therapy varies by person, dependent upon a variety of factors. Typically, there is a period of a few months wherein weekly therapy sessions are necessary. This is because we need to establish rapport and develop a treatment plan. However, following this foundational time, sessions can taper off to every two weeks to once a month.

Eventually, sessions will no longer be necessary. Although sometimes people find occasional check-ins to be helpful. While at other times, they find reward in transitioning to music lessons.

Generally, the more complicated and complex a person’s situation is the more time that may be necessary. Music therapy and counseling services are one hour long and cost $100 an hour when provided in Longmont. They are $120 an hour when provided outside of Longmont. Through SonderMind, I also take insurance. I work with Aetna, Anthem (HMO and PPO), Cigna, United Healthcare ComPsych, and Profile EAP.

My loved one or I am home-bound. Can you come to us?

Yes, we can come to clients who live in Boulder County. This includes traveling to either private residences or to long-term care communities.

Music Therapy

How could music make therapy more effective for my loved one or me?

Music can “amplify” the skills and insights gained from therapy. This is because music impacts us in many different, multifaceted ways. We are neurologically and physiologically hard-wired to respond to music. Moreover, music can connect us to unrecognized thoughts and feelings. At the same time while also serving as a means of communication and self-expression. We can create and investigate new ways of being by engaging with music.

My loved one or I am not musical, can music therapy still be beneficial?

Musical knowledge or ability isn’t necessary. As a music therapist, I can suggest accommodations or adaptations that can make it easier for you to make music. Furthermore, the work in therapy has its focus on the process, rather than a final product. Music therapy isn’t necessarily about a performance.

How is music therapy different from taking music lessons?

Music therapy and music lessons have very different goals and focus. In therapy, the key focus is on achieving specific therapeutic goals unrelated to music. Music serves as a tool, a vehicle for personal exploration, growth, and development. On the other hand, the focus of music lessons is musical development. Although that isn’t to say that a person may not find lessons to be therapeutic. SoundWell provides adapted music lessons to those who may benefit from an adapted approach. See our Studio Policy for more information.

Why I Enjoy Working with Older Adults and Mental Health

What Are Your Experiences Working with Older Adult Mental Health?

I have over 10 years of experience working with older adults, including memory care and in end-of-life care. Because of this, I’m sensitive to the unique and complex needs that come with aging. This includes a deep, heartfelt understanding of the needs and challenges of family caregivers. As a way to help support caregivers in the community, I teach the Powerful Tools for Caregivers course. This is an evidence-based program for caregivers. I’ve also written published articles on gerotranscendence and music.

Above all, I’m a strong proponent of aging well through creativity and contemplation.

“I’d Like to Work With You. What Do I Need to Do Next?”

Congratulations on taking this next step in addressing your mental health needs. If you are seeking out mental health support for an older adult you know, thank you for taking this important step. I know that this can be challenging.

If you have further questions, you can contact me by email. Otherwise, I offer a free 30-minute consultation by phone or at my office that you can schedule here. During this consultation, we’ll talk in more detail about your situation and how I might be able to help you.