by Annie Sandigo, MT-BC

It can be pretty intimidating when you encounter clients that speak a different language than yourself, especially if they don’t speak any English..When you can’t communicate with your clients, it might feel like a huge road block. That the therapeutic relationship is now inhibited, but don’t give up!

As a music therapist living and working in South Florida, I encounter many different cultures, languages, and people. I work primarily in dementia/memory care facilities, and in my experience, the largest ethnic population that I come in contact with is Spanish-speakers. I’ve definitely had my moments where I panicked and froze up when working with large groups of Spanish-speaking older adults. As a 20-something Caucasian, English-speaking female I’ve learned over time to adapt to my unique situations in the field with my Spanish-speaking elders.

Here are my 5 tips for working with Spanish-speaking older adults!

1. Learn basic Spanish phrases

I know this might sound a bit obvious, but knowing a few basics of the Spanish language will benefit you so much! I am not fluent in Spanish, but I try my best to learn new words and phrases that are relevant to music, music therapy, and music-making. Google Translate will become your best friend! Prior to sessions with my all Spanish-speaking elders, I will sit in my car and Google Translate words that I know I will need to use during that hour-long session. DuoLingo can also be a great help when learning basic Spanish words and phrases, such as greetings!

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Especially if you are working with a group, and there are staff members present, don’t hesitate to ask a staff member to help you find that correct words/phrases to use, or even to help translate your instructions for the group. I used to feel silly and like a bother when I would ask the staff for help translating, so I would try to avoid asking, but if they are present with a group of Spanish-speakers then they know how to communicate with them! Let them help you communicate clearly and effectively. Most of the time, I have staff members present that are participating in the group, and taking just a minute to ask them how to say a word or phrase in their native language is more helpful than not asking!

3. Listen to recordings and read lyric translations

I’ve learned that listening to recordings of the songs that I plan to use in my sessions help me pronounce words correctly, and play them more authentically when I do a live-version of the song. Sheet music can help too, but listening to the pacing of the songs from an original source has been a tried and true method to help me learn songs faster. Sometimes it can just feel like you’re singing nonsense when you don’t understand the words. That’s why I also recommend searching for English translations of the songs. This will help you know what emotions are present in the lyrics, and can help you plan the flow of the session better. I’ve had clients cry during songs, and if you don’t know what the song is about, then you might be left in the dark as to why they became emotional all of the sudden. Just Google the title of the song and add in “lyrics translation.”

4. Use recorded music

I used to hesitate to use recorded music in my sessions. I tried to always have enough songs and activities using live music, but over time I realized that recorded music is a goldmine resource! When I first started working with groups of Spanish-speakers, I realized that certain artists and versions of songs are more authentic than a replicated live version by a non-Spanish speaker. I love using recorded music for movement activities and musical games. Some great artists to use recordings of for older adults are Los Panchos, Los Tres Caballeros, Celia Cruz, etc. These artists are typically familiar to older adults that grew up in Spanish-speaking countries, and their songs are usually recognized in my groups. When I play a recorded song by Celia Cruz, my older adults go WILD! That reaction doesn’t always happen when I play a song on my guitar. This can be very useful for reminiscence and memory recall based goals.

5. Start simple!

Of course, learning and building up our repertoire of songs in other languages is a great tool to have in our belts, but start simple! There are many songs that are repetitive, have simple/easy to pronounce lyrics, and are most likely already familiar to you! Many Spanish songs are wordy, although beautiful, but take time to learn how to pronounce the words, and even fit all the words into a single phrase! Here are some of my favorite Spanish songs to use with my seniors: La Bamba, La Cucaracha, Guantanamera, De Colores, Cuando Calienta el Sol, Besame Mucho, Cielito Lindo, Alabare, and Quizas, quizas, quizas.

I hope these tips are helpful for those just starting to work with Spanish-speaking older adults, especially if Spanish is not your native language!