As much as I love to dance, there are in fact days (usually when I forget to drink my afternoon coffee) that I’m just not quite sure my limbs, torso, muscle, and bones are going to sync with my brain and produce some kind of coordinated movement. When I head off to a 5Rhythms or YogaDance class with a dull brain, I fear that even the most rockin’ tunes won’t get the engine going and I’ll end up wasting 2 hours sputtering in the driveway.

Most of the time, however, my inner Henry emerges.

Who is Henry, you ask?

Henry is that glorious moment when inertia suddenly switches to reaction. Henry is eyes lighting up. Henry is fingers snapping. Henry is the reminder that you can feel.

Henry also happens to be the poster child man for the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, whose goal is to bring the therapeutic benefits of personalized music to long-term care (LTC) settings nationally and globally. You may remember Henry from his spin around the social media circuit earlier this year, his wide-eyed and animated face plastered all over Facebook and Reddit video posts: “Man In Nursing Home Reacts To Hearing Music From His Era”:

What I recently found out was that Henry is just one of hundreds of older adults profoundly touched by the gift of music, and one of several featured in the up-and-coming documentary Alive Inside: The Story of Music & Memory. I had the privilege of attending an advanced screening of this documentary at my alma mater, coordinated by the Dean (who also happens to be a fellow blogger!) of my old stomping grounds, the College of Communication & Creative Arts. Both the executive director of Music & Memory, Dan Cohen, and the film’s producer/director, Michael Rossato-Bennett, were present to discuss their project.

Cohen, armed with volumes of evidence-based research on the connections between music, mind, and memory (including testimony from the renowned Oliver Sacks), is on a mission: to help all LTC residents and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease/related dementias reconnect with their joys, dreams, and passions of yesteryear using digital music players as the key to unlocking these deeply rooted memories.

The idea is simple and straightforward: Talk with LTC residents and their family members about what kind of music the residents enjoyed growing up; compile these songs in a personalized iPod playlist; place a pair of headphones on the resident’s ears; press Play.

Of course, the individuals featured in the documentary were ones with the most transformational reactions: Henry, described by his caregiver as “inert and unresponsive” suddenly began signing Cab Calloway, talking about his childhood, and waxing about love and God; Denise, who had been using a walker every day for the past two years, stood up, pushed it aside, and began dancing with the researcher; and Joe, a former performer, started singing like a Broadway star, his clearly trained voice stunning the other residents and staff. He cried afterward, stating that he was so happy to find that connection again.

Cohen pointed out that not everyone has the same reaction—for some residents, the response isn’t instantaneous; for others, it takes several attempts to narrow down just the right music that will spark something in their brains. Sometimes there is no change at all. Nevertheless, he said, there’s never been an adverse reaction to listening to some music. The video clip of Henry, in fact, was filmed 4 years ago. Today, Cohen said, Henry still has his music protocol. He’s declining physically yet remaining stable cognitively. Had it not been for the music, both domains instead of one would have most likely been on a downward slope.

This effect of music on the mind is nothing new, nor is the notion of bringing it into the lives of nursing home residents. The genius of Cohen’s vision, however, is (a) personalization and (b) high-quality stereophonic audio. With today’s technology, volunteers can easily create customized playlists for residents, adding and eliminating songs with the click of a mouse. This is one key difference in Cohen’s program versus, say, playing a record of Count Basie in the nursing home living room. Not everyone is going to appreciate Count Basie, and his music may not fire the neurons of someone who prefers bluegrass or the Beach Boys. The Music & Memory program also strives to personalize not just the music but a resident’s schedule as well. Maybe Jane likes to wake up to Broadway showtunes but functions better at bedtime with a soothing melody. With this program, residents’ music is tailored to their personal preferences, mood, and time of day.

In addition, the use of crystal-clear digital sound and the iPod headphones are crucial in a nursing home, where auditory distractions are commonplace. This way, residents get a “direct infusion of music,” said Cohen. Also, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, one’s ability to filter out background noise diminishes, he pointed out. A stereo sitting on a nightstand may be useless for someone who is going to be distracted by a ticking clock or voices in the hallway.

While this is all very inspiring work, one of the challenges Cohen faces is convincing nursing home CEOs and potential donors that it is worth the money. It can be disheartening when facilities and insurance companies will pay millions of dollars for a treasure chest of antidepressant/antipsychotic drugs but can’t find value in spending $40 per person for a program that will rejuvenate hearts and souls, something no drug on the market can do. It is the lazy/ignorant route to point at patients slumped in the corner and claim that they are withdrawn and unresponsive, so if drugs can’t help them, how can an hour of Elvis?

As editor of two gerontological nursing publications for the past 5 years, I guess you could say I have a soft spot in my heart for the older adult population, and yes, that is partially why I attended the screening; however, I was more interested in witnessing just how magical music can be. Nearly everyone featured in the documentary had some kind of physical response to the music—tapping their feet, swaying, gesturing their arms like a conductor—a testament to how deeply music is stored and can be felt in our bodies. One woman—bedridden and catatonic—began rocking back and forth when the headphones were placed on her ears.

It’s reactions like this that make me even more appreciative of not only Cohen’s work but that of movement-based therapeutic modalities such as Let Your Yoga Dance (which has a separate teacher training for those who wish to work with special populations, including older adults), the 5Rhythms Reach Out for elders, and Wu Tao Dance for the dementia population. When the older adults in Cohen’s Music & Memory program start ditching their walkers and wheelchairs, these groups will be prepared to add safe movement to that oh-so-magic music.

Have you found your inner Henry yet? Put on some music and see if it does to you what it does to Henry:

“It gives me the feeling of love, of romance. I figure right now the world needs to come into music, singing. You’ve got beautiful music here.”

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