Designing new musical technologies for older adults' wellbeing

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Music


In the next 50 years, it is estimated that there will be an additional 8.6 million people in the UK who are aged over 65, and over 1.4 million of these are expected to have dementia. Interacting with music has the potential to be a powerful activity for people with varying levels of cognitive impairment, contributing to their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Yet, access for older adults who live independently out in the community, those who are supported by formal/informal carers or who are in residential care is vastly limited by the current tools and devices we use to make and explore music.

This fellowship investigates how we can harness emerging technologies to boost opportunities for older adults with cognitive impairment to interact with music. This links previous research demonstrating that older adults gain strong and positive social connections when interacting with music together, with the development and refinement of new technologies that will increase accessibility for those with cognitive impairments. The fellowship will take a multi-layered approach with aims including i) investigating the macro-level of unmet needs of older adults with cognitive impairments, i.e. what do they want to be able to do and/or create with music, how do they want a new tool to look, feel like, and respond, ii) determining the micro-level intricacies of design that will have an immense impact on usage, enjoyment and consequently the user's wellbeing, and iii) using the knowledge generated to feed into the design of new resources and tools for this population. Using multidisciplinary methods (laboratory-controlled individual experiments, survey and group workshops) to examine these interconnected levels, outcomes will be chanelled into the development of innovative new tools and assistive technologies which specifically enable older adults, ranging from mild to moderate cognitive impairment, to fully participate in interacting with music, both individually and in group activities.

The fellowship is innovative in terms of incorporating older adults with cognitive impairments and their carers as co-designers of this research. This will allow for the potential end-users to assist in designing the research activities and interpretation of the findings as well as co-developing the resultant tools and technologies. Outcomes will be a set of prototype musical interfaces designed specifically for this group. Guidelines will be published that concern the development and selection of new music technologies with the aims of widening accessibility for different caring contexts. This will ultimately be of benefit to a wide range of facilitators from volunteers, community arts workers, music therapists and lifestyle coordinators in aged care. Findings and resources will also be of use to those involved in the design of new assistive technologies, particularly to support creative activities, as well as those in aged-care and public health, providing further evidence of the value of arts interventions within care. This research will expressly be of benefit to older adults with dementia and their carers, creating new resources to support increased interaction with music and consequently contribute to sustained wellbeing.

Planned Impact

The UK's ageing society, and increasing incidence of dementia, demands innovative new ways to support older adults in leading independent and fulfilling lives. Approximately £26.3 billion is spent on dementia including NHS costs, social care and family-provided unpaid care or private social care. With national use of arts for health and wellbeing shown to improve social care and local services, the insights and understanding generated by this fellowship of how music interfaces can be optimised for older adults with cognitive impairments will be of ultimate benefit to those who work in public health and aged-care. Data produced on the wellbeing outcomes of these older adults taking part in musical interactions will provide powerful evidence for the allocation of resources in acute and short-term care (e.g. arts in hospitals) and in longer-term residential care. Advice on specific aspects of new technology (and how they are perceived and received by older adults) may also be applicable to the selection of broader assistive technologies in daily living. Awareness of these guidelines will benefit public health aged-care services who seek to use assistive technology to facilitate daily tasks, reduce staff burden, and to increase their residents' quality of life. The pathways to impact describes how aged-care and public health organisations will be further involved in engagement activities throughout the fellowship, with broad plans to roll-out music interaction technologies to these healthcare settings.

The production of specific musical interfaces and guidelines to aid in the selection of technologies to facilitate musical activities for those with dementia, will ultimately be valuable for facilitators of music activities in a wide range of contexts (volunteers, community arts workers, music therapists, informal carers and aged-care lifestyle coordinators). Many creative activities currently in the community or in residential aged-care are limited by the available expertise. Knowledge of current access and barriers to musical activities for older adults with dementia, along with the creation of new tools that aim to unlock the musical potential of these adults will be useful in contributing to the optimisation of these services and activities. The knowledge and tools generated from this research will expedite the upskilling of interested facilitators, increasing accessibility not only for potential end-users, but for those wanting to establish music interaction opportunities for their local communities.

The research will vastly benefit older adults who are likely to, or are already suffering from dementia, their friends and family, and formal or informal carers. Knowledge and resources generated from this fellowship will assist these older adults with their pursuit of mentally stimulating activities that encourage mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, supporting them to live independent and creative lives. Older adults with cognitive impairments will act as co-researchers in the fellowship, directly assisting with various stages of development of new technologies. Older adults have received little attention in terms of the design and implementation of creative technologies: this research will provide an avenue for their voices to be heard. Follow-ups, community surveys and engagement workshops detailed in the pathways to impact will ensure continuing involvement of and impact to these end-users.

Music technology development companies, and assistive technology industries more broadly will benefit from knowledge of the older adult user: how they want to use new devices and what the current barriers are. Older adults with cognitive impairments, and those who provide care for them represent an emerging market that could be utilising cutting edge technology developments in a number of daily living tasks, not least those of the focus of this proposal, which is tools and technologies to support interaction with music.
Description Research England - Participatory Research funding
Amount £19,700 (GBP)
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 07/2022
Description SBRI - Healthy Ageing Social Ventures industrial research
Amount £149,907 (GBP)
Organisation Innovate UK 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 08/2023
Description Doctoral Plenary Day (Royal College of Music) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Approximately 30 postgraduate students attended their institution's Doctoral Plenary Day for discussion on developing careers in academia. I was invited to speak as part of a panel of 3 members on our career trajectories and topics of interest which sparked questions and discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Film - Pop Up University event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Approximately 136 views so far have been recorded for a short film made about the research fellowship. This was promoted as part of the PopUp University event at The University of Sheffield, and the video is now available online, on the project webpage for viewing, as well as being published on the Healthy Lifespan Institute news webpage

This video and associated links have been used to facilitate discussion and generate interest in the research with various organisations such as residential aged care, community arts, and healthcare nationally. Further impact is expected via these weblinks that have been republished on websites of local residential aged care in the UK, as well as distributed via newsletters of networks for older adults in Australia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Public discussion group 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Patients, carers and/or patient groups
Results and Impact On each occasion, approximately 6-10 people living with dementia and their family members/carers attended a locally organised dementia research action group meeting. At each meeting we were invited to present our topic and questions to start discussion in the group.

This visit led to the audience being interested in further involvement in the research as well as plans made for future workshop activity within these groups. As the research team, our own views and opinions on people living with dementia's needs and rewards when interacting with music were changed as a result of these discussions. This influenced decisions made in our research design in terms of the scope and types of questions we will ask in future survey and interview activities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021