It is December, and after a period of resolutely avoiding Christmas music and decorations since they started showing up around Halloween, I have been thinking about how to use holiday music effectively with older adult groups. As pointed out in this recent post by JoAnn Jordan, a fellow music therapist, it is easy to go a bit overboard with Christmas music – community groups seem eager to come caroling, the regular music groups are easily converted to Christmas sing-alongs, and it seems obligatory to play those 24-hour Christmas music radio stations in the dining room and living areas. Of course, it is appropriate and important to integrate holiday music into activities with older adults during this season, but since your residents will probably have many opportunities to sing along with their favorite carols, consider structuring sessions around sub-themes within the overall idea of holiday music for added depth and interest. Here are some theme ideas:
1. Decorating for Christmas: Your group can write new verses to “O Christmas Tree” and talk about what exactly “don we now our gay apparel” means in the song “Deck the Halls.” Add these musical activities to the time spent decorating one of the home’s Christmas trees for a richer overall experience.
2. The Sights/Sounds/Smells/Touches of Christmas: These can each be their own session or can be combined into one session. Great songs for this theme? How about “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” or “Silver Bells?” Again, you can combine music experiences with related craft or cooking activities.
3. Christmas Around the World: Use this session as an opportunity to discuss familiar and unfamiliar holiday traditions from various cultures and play music from around the world. This is also an opportunity for residents to share their own traditions that may have been passed down from relatives from other parts of the world.
4. Gift-Giving/Receiving: This theme is another way to bring up giving traditions from other faiths and holidays while also touching on the ever-popular Santa songs. A simple songwriting activity on this theme is to write new verses to the song “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” – change the first and last lines to match the residents’ suggestions (e.g. “All I want for Christmas is my family here…so we can celebrate together.”)
5. Reindeer Games: A spin-off from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” lyrics, this invites a variety of musical games, such as Musical Hot Potato, Name That Tune, and Stop/Go Drumming. This would also be a good time to play the dreidel game to celebrate Hanukkah.
6. Meditative Holiday: This is an opportunity to plan a deliberately quiet, meditative session as a contrast to the usual emphasis on holiday cheer. Choose a quieter, more private place for this session if possible and set the mood with slower-tempo songs and relaxation exercises. This is especially appropriate for residents who are having difficulty coping during the holiday season, perhaps because of losses in their personal lives.
Any of these themes can be used to enhance the regular activity programming in your long-term care or assisted living facility. Music therapists can further expand and refine these ideas according to their clients’ needs and goals.
A couple of other thoughts on holiday music are worth repeating:
1. Don’t forget that not everyone celebrates Christmas. Know which of your residents do not celebrate this holiday and make sure that their traditions and values are not left out.
2. Be sensitive to the effect Christmas music has on your residents. Christmas is not always a happy time for everyone, and holiday music may bring up difficult memories or make the season even more difficult for those who are mourning the loss of loved ones this year.
3. Give yourself permission to play non-holiday music during December as well. Your ears will thank you.