Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Tapping the Power of Music — Part II

By Nancy Sokoler Steiner

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
~Victor Hugo

One of music's most striking powers can be seen in its impact on individuals with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. A dramatic example of this effect is found on a viral YouTube video featuring an elderly Alzheimer's patient named Henry. At first, Henry is slumped over in his chair, his head bent forward, his speech condensed. Then an aide gives him an iPod. The moment Henry starts listening, he becomes instantly animated: his face lights up and he begins to move his arms and legs. After his headphones are removed, he talks about his love of jazz, and sings lyrics from a favorite song.

Later in the same video, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks comments on Henry's response. "In some sense, Henry is restored to himself," says Sacks. "He remembered who he is and has reacquired his identity for a while through the power of music."

While music doesn't always evoke reactions as extreme as Henry's, it does seem to engage even the most unresponsive of individuals. That is one reason music plays a major role in the Los Angeles Jewish Home's skilled nursing and dementia care.

Susan Leitch, community manager of the Goldenberg·Ziman Special Care Center and Max Factor Family Foundation Building, notes that music is played throughout the day, and carefully chosen to set the tone and help cue residents. For example, calm, relaxing music is played in the evening to signal winding down of the day.

Music is also used more formally in music therapy sessions for skilled nursing and dementia care residents. Music therapist Cindy McGee facilitates sessions twice a week. These sessions, she says, are not sing-alongs; they are therapeutic interventions with specific goals.

One goal, called reality orientation, aims to bring participants who may not be aware of their surroundings into the present moment. Another is to aid recall and reminiscence by evoking thoughts and memories associated with the music.

During music therapy, says McGee, "participants will mention the name of a relative or tell a story they normally can't remember. It allows them to connect to something outside themselves."

As a recent session, McGee played Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and residents sang along. She asked them who sang the song, and passed around a photo of the Wizard of Oz cast. After several of them pointed to Dorothy, McGee asked them to name the movie.

"What would you ask the Wizard for?" she later queried the group.

"Good health," answered one.

"A good looking guy," said another.

Whether in the background or in a formal setting, music evokes a response. That response may be as subtle as the tapping of a foot, as dramatic as the transformation of YouTube's Henry, or as familiar as the desire for romance.

The beauty of music, it seems, is it's universal appeal. As Susan Leitch says, "Music involves everyone. It doesn't matter what level of function you're at."

Nancy Sokoler Steiner Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Lifestyles Magazine, among other publications.

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