As a geriatrician, I’ve spent much of my time in the company of elders exploring life beyond adulthood. The shortcomings of our medical system to meet the human needs of elders as they navigate this uncharted territory are too numerous to list. Particularly when it comes to the way in which it treats people living with dementia. Of the 1.5 million people who have been institutionalized for medical problems, about 80 percent have been segregated from the general population because they are living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Because our medical system treats the trials of sickness, aging and changing cognitive ability exclusively as medical concerns, these people are too often tucked away from sight and treated with powerful psychotropic drugs. The treatment is not aimed at providing relief or a cure, but at making the patient more manageable – at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars for drugs that provide limited relief and cause significant side effects.
For more than a decade, a handful of passionate organizations and advocates like myself have argued, and proved, that it can be different. Programs like The Eden Alternative, Ecumen’s Awakenings, Anne Basting’s Timeslips and Dr. Al Power’s book Dementia Beyond Drugsdemonstrate that non-pharmacological interventions for dementia provide meaningful benefits without the cost or the dangers of psychotropic drugs.
One of the most exciting of these new techniques is also the most elegantly simple – providing personalized music to people living with dementia.
The benefits of providing music to a person who has lost access to it include better memory, improved mood, decreased pain, increased engagement and enhanced well-being. Clinical studies demonstrate that it is possible for personalized music to have a greater effect than any medication.
Anyone who has doubts about the efficacy of personalized music can watch the technique graphically demonstrated in Alive Inside, the groundbreaking documentary on music and memory that is now available on DVDand streaming on Netflix.
I was honored to participate in the filming of Alive Inside with director Michael Rossato-Bennett. Time and again, Michael’s camera captured small miracles as life re-ignites in the eyes of people who have long been unresponsive after they are exposed to familiar, beloved tunes.
This simple, elegant film opens the door to a conversation about how we think about aging in general and about what we think makes a life worth living. For too long we have put the fate of our elders – our fate – into the hands of a medical system designed to focus exclusively on the repair of health and ignore what makes life significant. We’re not going to see music in the lives of every older person until we confront our own fear of aging and our own fear of death and demand a long term care system that does more than provide for safety and protection. If we do that, we can build a society where nursing home means “nurturing” home. Where people go there to grow and live and love and laugh and listen to good music.
Music can be at the heart of the conversation about what makes a life worth living.
Brian Bui says
Hello, I am a AGNG 200 student at the Erickson School of Aging. I can definitely agree with music as being one of the best sources of enlightenment because it is central part of my daily life. I walk to class while listening to music, I drive while listening to music, and I study while listening to music. Music is a special stimulus that can change well being of person.
The trailer of the film “Alive Inside” definitely touched my heart after hearing phrase “we haven’t done anything to touch heart and soul of patient” and Dr. Bill Thomas said “treatment is not aimed at providing relief or a cure, but at making the patient more manageable.” In class, I learned dementia is impairment of cognitive ability which as a result affect a person’s daily life, rendering them unable to use their crystal and fluid intelligent ability which force them to rely on others to get by their day. Dr. Bill Thomas mentioned providing music to patients with dementia improve their memory, mood, and well-being, which is counteracting all symptoms of dementia. If we can use music rather than pills, lets make it happen.
My mother is bedridden, only fed fluids as she has forgotten how to open her mouth but since she went to her care facility nearly 5 years ago we have ensured she has music she loves constantly around her. Music can take you anywhere and certainly seems to take her away to some pleasant memories. Thank you for caring enough to try and change medical thoughts on dementia.
Sara Marberry says
Thanks, Bill, for this post. My mother, as you know, is struggling with dementia and I think it’s time we got her an iPod! Also, great connections to the work I’m doing with The C.A.R.E. Channel, which provides music and nature videos for patients in more than 800 hospitals in the U.S. Also some residential care facilities…Wonder what the impact of both music and nature would be on people living with dementia?
Cathy Weber says
We have seen positive results with the Music & Memory program at Rolling Fields Eldercare Community.
Rich Mayfield says
This is a timely post as we are showing the film tomorrow at Mt. San Antonio Gardens in Pomona, CA as a kick-off to our implementing the Music and Memory Program here.
Fred Conelly says
Rich: Thanks for your response. I will check out the DVD. I am looking forward to getting more
information on your programs. I am sold on your approach. I have built many of the current
models of retirement, extended care or rest homes in Arizona and see a real need for your ideas.
If possible, I would like to know if there is a program available for developers to use in initiating a
Green House. Fred Conelly President W. F, Conelly Construction Co. dba WFC Builders.
fred conelly says
AS A MUSICIAN and contractor …I have seen first hand the enormous benefit of music. fred conelly