Power of music brings generations together in McMaster course

·3 min read

Dianne Dunn, 86, grew up in a music-loving family. She enjoyed going to operas, tried her hand at piano (though she says she’s not very good at it), and listened to the greats like Frank Sinatra.

She believes in the power of music to help people grow.

“That’s a good outlet in many ways, socially and physically, and just matures them,” she said. “It’s so beautiful to be able to know what music is about.”

That’s why she volunteered to participate in McMaster University’s “Music, Health, and the Community” course which teaches students about music’s impact on the brain, with a focus on older adults. The placement course brings youth and seniors together through music.

Previously, the health sciences course saw students work with local elementary school students to share music with residents in long-term care and retirement homes. But due to the pandemic, the course moved online this year and connected high school students and older adults virtually across Canada. The program wraps up its virtual go this week.

McMaster students were divided into groups to facilitate Zoom sessions with up to three high school students and one or two older adult volunteers. Through 45-minute calls, they participated in ice breakers and activities connected to music. The program culminates in a virtual musical performance by the high school students, which Dunn attended Monday.

“It was really so beautiful to see these young people playing this instrument, it meant so much,” said Dunn. The Mountain resident also learned more about what the kids are listening to — even though the music doesn’t always appeal to her.

“It always amazes me that these young people know every word to every song that you hear on the radio or you see on TV and that’s terrific, but I can’t even understand those words,” she said. But Dunn added the students were open to her perspective.

“I never once was made to feel that I was so much older than them and that my views were a little bit crazy,” she said.

Chelsea Mackinnon, one of the course instructors, said the program teaches youth about working with older adults while also allowing the seniors to give back.

“Our kids today are the first generation that will grow up where there is more older people than there are young people, so we feel it’s really important to normalize the aging process,” she said.

The course is also intended to help build relationships across generations.

“A lot of children, unless it’s their own family, have almost no experience spending time with older adults,” said Brad Haalboom, also a course instructor. “We find that retirement homes and long-term care homes are often ... cut off from society. We’re trying to bridge those gaps.”

Mackinnon added there is a phenomenon called “generativity,” where as a person ages, they want to give back.

“It’s providing this sense of purpose and meaning for the older adults who are participating, who can give advice, share meaningful moments, and feel like they’re actively contributing to society,” she said.

Hannan Minhas, one of the McMaster facilitators who worked with Dunn, said music’s ability to inspire emotion allowed participants to connect on a more personal level.

“Music is universal. Everyone likes some sort of music,” said the fifth-year student. Minhas added the sessions were something to “look forward to” especially since it wasn’t possible to see friends regularly this year.

It also taught Minhas about the similarities between youth and older adults.

“What surprised me is there were so many things we had in common,” Minhas said. “Even though we had different music tastes ... our values were similar.”

The instructors are seeking new volunteers aged 65 and over to participate in the next semester. Those interested can email info@imhope.ca.

Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator