SNF Spotlight

Senior Samba Music Therapy with Tamar Frieden

Music brings joy and even creates miracles for residents in senior care facilities

Music is well known to enhance the lives of seniors in skilled nursing facilities and for residents in memory care units in particular. Tamar Frieden, founder of Music for Life, has seen music create miracles as well.

She’s seen participants who were unresponsive or had been mute for months suddenly come to life and sing a song or even speak to another participant.

“Music is just something that makes people feel happy, but when it comes to those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, music is the key to open a door to being present in the moment.”

Scientific research shows evidence of what Tamar’s seen firsthand throughout her career in music and dance therapy. Music memory taps into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning among individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Tamar only stumbled into the field of music therapy for seniors accidentally.

Two decades ago when Tamar sought a place to host her interactive music program for toddlers, the most logical location was a nearby assisted living facility with a large community room. What she didn’t anticipate was how those Toddlers Tango classes would become the springboard for today’s Senior Samba.

“The residents would hear the music and they would come in, and then the kids were so excited to see them that they would share their toys,” says Freiden.

Once the facility administrator saw how much the program resonated with the seniors, she asked Tamar to develop classes for them. “So we had an intergenerational class happen as organically as can be.”

Seniors Samba is an interactive music and movement series designed to:

  • Increase cognitive functions
  • Improve confidence
  • Use fine motor skills
  • Increase memory skills

Most importantly, the program creates strong community interaction and joy.

Music enhances encoding, memory and cognition for seniors

Tamar saw how music triggers seniors’ memories, even for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and she was hooked. “They were able to shake an egg and be present and create a community. And it’s just a beautiful thing to observe and to be part of. Music stays in your memory.”

Tamar says the instruments and props also make a big impact on the experience for seniors because of the vibration the participants feel in their hands and body. ”They notice and can feel that they’re moving, and music just brings them joy and calm.”

For this reason, music interventions have been widely adopted in skilled nursing facilities as a potential therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease to treat cognitive and behavioral symptoms of the disease.

One study found that “music enhanced verbal encoding of information. The ability of music to enhance encoding, memory and cognition in AD [Alzhemer’s disease] persons has been attributed to modulating physiological responses. It has been postulated that music’s ability to induce arousal and evoke positive emotional responses can activate the parasympathetic or sympathetic nervous system, depending on the type of music and rhythm, to in turn alleviate neuropsychological symptoms and enhance encoding efforts.”

Tamar can attest that when it comes to residents in Alzheimer’s dementia and memory care units, music is a powerful way to trigger memory. A familiar song can make a person suddenly present and engaged. Tamar says, “I feel that I’m doing God’s work when I go in and I see the results. Every class, the smiles, the joy, the movement of people who could be totally non-responsive until they just feel a shaky egg in their hand and hear the music.”

Tamar can even recall a seemingly miraculous encounter when a senior with Alzheimer’s, who had become otherwise mute, would suddenly spark up a conversation with a baby at one of the intergenerational classes. “From complete silence, this woman started to talk, and it was moving for everybody,” says Freiden.

She says, “The joy it brings to seniors is unmistakable in their expressions as they participate side by side singing, moving and making music.”

Music therapy builds community for seniors

Music also creates community, which Tamar has seen firsthand among toddlers and seniors. Prior to the pandemic, Tamar recalls a class where one woman’s arm was immobile. The group was playing with rhythm sticks and a woman next to her suggested they tap theirs together. “There are these magical moments, and I’m very grateful to share in them.”

The program is designed as an in-person gathering, but during the pandemic, Tamar created a virtual experience for facilities. She began last spring offering classes over Zoom, but she saw that it was hard to stay connected. “When we got out of the first lockdown, I hired two videographers and I filmed four of the Senior Samba sessions and created a Senior Samba online virtual membership program.”

She says, “The program includes turn-key solutions for your facility to incorporate dynamic and effective activities for seniors in an inclusive format.”

Facilities can purchase the videos, instructions and instruments to facilitate 30-minute classes for residents.

Music is so powerful that it can even make some of the struggles for seniors and their caregivers in this pandemic a little bit more manageable.


To bring Seniors Samba to your facility, email Tamar at

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