Music Can Be at the Heart of a Life Worth Living

By / Posted on January 6th, 2015

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 (http://www.ecumenawakenings.org), Anne Basting’s Timeslips (http://www.timeslips.org) and Dr. Al Power’s book “Dementia Beyond Drugs” demonstrate 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 DVD and 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 old 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 of elders. 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.