The Therapeutic Power of Music

I sat on the couch with my son Saturday to watch something on television.

Within minutes, I was crying like a newborn.

The boo-hooing was a result of a documentary directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett. In it, he follows around for three years social worker Dan Cohen as he improves the lives of people in nursing homes.

Armed with only a tiny iPod and headphones, Cohen examines the magic of music on patients with dementia and other debilitating mental diseases.

The film shows us Henry, a 94-year-old man spends his days in a wheelchair, head down and mute. Cohen applies the headphones, playing the music of his Henry’s era, and the response is immediate.

Head rising and eyes bugging out, he starts scatting and singing to Cab Calloway in the most resonant, beautiful voice. The headphones are removed and Henry remains alert, able to answer questions about his childhood and what was important to him.

The music has unlocked his memory and emotion, making him whole again.

In “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory,” viewers see countless examples of music’s therapeutic power.

A woman who is a bipolar schizophrenic pushes away her walker and begins to dance with Cohen. A bedridden patient, allowed to hear the rhythms of her childhood, joyously gyrates beneath the sheets. A grandmother listens to the Beach Boys and begins to flit around the room like a schoolgirl.

“I thought you were going to grow wings,” the interviewer says.

“I was trying.”

One physician said that he in 38 years of working with Alzheimer’s patients, nothing had proved more effective than music therapy.

In America, the institutionalizing of old folks has become commonplace.

There are 16,000 nursing homes in this country and many of their residents have zero quality of life. Force-fed pills that dull their senses, they retreat into a solitude from which they never escape.

People deserve better.

Cohen is certainly doing his part. His Music and Memory program is in about 650 nursing homes nationwide.

But we can do more. Here’s how.

Donate an iPod to someone in a nursing home. Volunteer in a local Music and Memory program. Set up a playlist for an elder.

No matter the affliction, a soul beats in all of us, if only we are willing to find it.

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