Music and memory is a music project designed by Dan Cohen and is the basis of the independent film Alive Inside. Dan entered residential facilities throughout the country with the proposal of helping individuals with dementia and other cognitive disorders, those with extreme pain, people with behavior difficulties, and more. His idea included selecting resident-specific music, downloading these onto an iPod, and then giving this to residents to listen to with headsets for privacy. For more details, refer to my first article, Music and Memory.
Through the openness of the Director of Nursing and Activities Director at our local long-term care facility and funding from the hospital auxiliary, music and memory arrived in my hometown. After online training care facility employees, volunteers, family members, and the local high school cheerleaders rolled out this program. While the movie shows residents “coming alive” when favorite tunes are played, seeing it with my own eyes revealed the magic and wonder of the moment.
Each team member interviewed residents and played possible tunes on laptops and cellphones. When a resident could not speak for himself/herself, family members offered background information and volunteers experimented with possibilities. With this knowledge songs began to fill the room. One lady who often sits by the front door and always greets me when I enter with a return “Hello” is suddenly exploding with information about her past in Austria, her friends and cousins, and hints as to the music she loves. When I pointed out this miracle to workers, their astonishment was as deep as my own, “She never speaks”. But during this experience she does.
Another resident entered the recreation room nervous and a bit confrontational. Gentle words helped sooth him, and then music was played. Instead of being argumentative and agitated as he often is in the afternoon, he broke into a smile, clapped quietly, and sang a few of the words. He spent several hours there in the peaceful seclusion of his preferred melodies.
A third individual had her niece at hand to help choose appropriate songs. The aunt has been in steady decline with fewer and fewer words exchanged with each visit. It was decided that the aunt really liked religious hymns and so the first one played. This withdrawn aunt began to sing along. In fact she sang every word to that song and to the ten that followed. She had found her words once again. Later that evening the niece let me know that her aunt did not remember the music and the moment. This bothered them both because it had been such a lovely scene. Later when bedtime arose, staff tried the headphones again and wonder of wonders, aunt sang herself to sleep.
Another resident was resting flat on her bed, emitting sounds of pain. When I tried to chat with her, she mumbled and asked for more pillows. When her music helper arrived and tunes began to play, a great transformation unfolded. She smiled and patted her hands. In a steady voice she requested other songs and artists. She asked for more. And for a while, her pain vanished as she lost herself in the notes.
Regular facility workers looked on in awe. The cheerleaders? They exploded with pride. Grins, tears, and hugs abounded as they thanked the residents and staff for this moving experience. For the price of an iPod and headset and a gift card for downloading music, happiness overtook the room. Such a simple, inexpensive investment paid the ultimate dividend – joy. It is a great way for you to reach out to those you love, to those in need.