Music Share addresses senior social isolation with the power of music

17 December 2020 / by Sam Dharmasena
Music Share Logo

Music Share is a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing senior social isolation through individualized, music-based programming. Their initial model had volunteers entering long term care facilities, spending time with residents and listening to curated playlists together. Now they’re leveraging the musical element of their program to reach similar outcomes during the pandemic. Music Share founder Julian Powell tells CJRU the impact they are making in the community, how the program got started and what’s in store for 2021.

Powell, a musician himself, began building Music Share as a Ryerson student in the 2016-2017 academic year. In his Community Psychology class he had the choice of writing an essay or completing volunteer hours, so he began volunteering with Meals on Wheels (MOW). MOW delivers nutritious and affordable hot meals to a variety of groups including seniors, people with physical disabilities and cognitive impairments. This volunteer experience is what sparked the initial idea for Music Share.

“While I noticed that peoples’ physical needs were being met, their emotional and spiritual needs weren’t 100 percent being fulfilled… There were a good number of people that were really looking to learn a bit more about who was dropping off their meals and have a quick chat. And that’s really hard to do for people when you’re trying to get hot food to everyone on your list. And that really struck a chord with me,” he explains.

Those encounters, along with the $10,000 RECODE at Ryerson grant, allowed Powell to test pilot the Music Share program throughout 2017 and 2018. He also received support from Ryerson’s Social Ventures Zone (SVZ), a campus incubator focused on social innovation. Powell says that insights from the SVZ team and learning from his peers have shaped Music Share into the program it is today.

Even before the pandemic, bringing volunteers into the facility was not always possible because influenza outbreaks and lockdowns are common occurrences in long term care facilities during flu season. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it extended those protocols and feelings of social isolation with no return date in sight for programming and volunteers. Powell adjusted the Music Share model in the spring and has spent the majority of 2020 bringing monthly, curated playlists to residents. Powell drops off the Music Share iPads and Bose speakers at the participating long term care homes and from there, staff will deliver it to residents’ rooms and simply click play.

“While we’re not able to give people exactly what we want to give them for safety’s sake, music is a fantastic way to connect people back to memories, friends, special moments in their life. We’ve seen first hand a lot of special moments coming out of the program already with residents singing along to songs, clapping along…” Powell says.

In January 2021, Music Share will be operating in six facilities across Toronto and is looking to expand his volunteer team of playlisters. Powell is also working to diversify the sound of the program and is hoping to connect with folks that can create culturally specific playlists. All Music Share playlists are created in collaboration with residents, who complete a questionnaire on their musical tastes. Powell says that the personalized element of the program is what makes it such a powerful tool for combating senior social isolation. Right now, there are a few residents that are interested in Cantonese playlists and while Powell is researching and doing his best to meet their musical needs, he says the best playlists would be made by someone that has connections to the culture and language.

“You can only go so far when you’re not exactly sure what’s said and the ideas that are being presented. Every culture has things in their music that are special and important to them’ll have different keywords and phrases, it would be great to have folks that can key into those things,” Powell explains.

To hear more about Music Share, listen to the interview below.