Livening virtual visits with music therapy

February 4, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the way residents in long-term care and their families and friends connect. Virtual visits have become more popular and often necessary, but it can be challenging to connect with loved ones through a screen.

Team members at The Village of Riverside Glen noticed that virtual visits were particularly difficult for many of their residents living with dementia. This led Kate Dupuis, Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at Sheridan College, to ask the question – how can the arts encourage connection during virtual visits?

Dupuis started a new research project to see if music therapy could lead to more positive virtual connections with residents and their families. The research team tested this idea by bringing a music therapist into virtual visits.

“Communicating with family members or friends through a screen for 30 minutes is not something many of the residents are used to,” explained Dupuis. “We know that music has the power to bring people together, so we were thrilled to bring this idea to life.” Dupuis and her team received Spark-ON funding from the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation to bring this project to life. 

Over the course of 5-6 weeks, 16 residents joined a family member in a virtual visit with a music therapist, Kathy Lepp, who has extensive experience working in the long-term care space. Lepp would take requests, playing guitar and singing songs from residents’ pasts, and the family members and residents would often join in.

“It was truly heartwarming to see. Some residents who don’t communicate much verbally would tap their foot, hum, whistle or nod along to an old song,” said Dupuis. “I witnessed many beautiful moments.”

These opportunities to get creative are even more valuable during the pandemic, given recreation activities have been limited at times and visits from community members, including musicians who often go into long-term care homes to perform, have been restricted.  

The research team interviewed residents’ loved ones after the intervention was over. Preliminary findings from the research have shown overwhelmingly positive results. Many reported enjoying the opportunity to connect with their loved ones on a deeper level; the music would often lead to reminiscing on fond memories of road trips, pets, and everything in between. The results also showed high levels of interaction and engagement for all three parties.

The project wrapped up in December 2021, and though it was created in response to the pandemic, the vast majority of participants said they would like to continue virtual visits with music therapy. It’s an easy solution to getting loved ones across the country together, and music therapy has many benefits beyond its potential to improve virtual connections. It also supports residents’ cognitive, emotional, and social domains of well-being.

Next, Dupuis and the team hope to bring this special way of connecting to other Schlegel Villages. They are also creating a resource that will be released in the spring to help long-term care homes across Canada facilitate music therapy during virtual visits, and are excited to present their findings at the Canadian Association of Music Therapists conference in May.