Help Seniors Write a Song for Labor Day

With Labor Day coming up next week, I wanted to share a simple songwriting exercise that I have used frequently with older adult music therapy groups. One trick to successful songwriting interventions with groups that include seniors with memory impairments is to base the group’s song on a familiar favorite, leaving the melody and harmony intact and changing as few of the words as possible. You get from the steps of songwriting to the performance quickly enough to let more people feel the joy of creation. (I shared another songwriting exercise for Thanksgiving last year.)

Here are the steps for this songwriting exercise:

1. Start with the familiar folk tune “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Sing it through once with the group to let everyone recall the melody.

2. Tell the group you are all going to add new verses to the song about the kinds of work they have done in the past.

3. Ask individual group members what kind of work they did. Make this a conversation, and give them a chance to reminisce for a moment, too! Some folks can share this information more readily than others. Here are some questions that might help them along:

  • What kind of work did you do when you were younger?
  • Did you work outside the home? Were you a homemaker?
  • What were your responsibilities at that job?
  • How did you get that job?

If participants aren’t able to answer these questions themselves, use the information nursing staff know about the resident’s occupation or what might be in the resident’s chart.

4. Fill in the lyrics with individuals’ names and occupations. Change words as you wish to make the lines work. Here’s an sample verse:

Mary’s been working at the schoolhouse all the live long day.

Pete’s been working at the Boeing factory just to pass the time away.

Joe’s been selling shoes. Sylvia’s been watching kids.

Everybody’s working hard. We’ve all got work to do.

Advantages of this activity

You might get to learn something new about a participant’s background.

Participants will likely share something that they’re proud of, and it might be different than you expect. For example, I had a client once who worked as a stewardess for a few years before getting married and spending the next few decades as a homemaker. She loved sharing the stories from those few years as a flight attendant, even though it wasn’t the occupation she had for a lifetime.

Using participants’ names keeps them actively involved and reinforces their importance as a member of the group.

You can involve all the members of a large group in this activity since four people can be mentioned in each verse. For a smaller group or one-on-one activity, you can add more detail about individuals’ job responsibilities, where and when they worked, etc.

This activity would be great to include as part of a Labor Day party, a nursing home sing-along, or a Labor Day-themed music therapy session.

What do you think? What interesting stories have you heard about seniors’ working lives? Please share below.

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