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A Musical Antidote to Nursing Home Blues

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Does anyone out there look forward to living in a nursing home? No takers? No surprise.

That's the response I always get when I pose this question to a group.

In fact, many of us make our kids promise they will never put us in a nursing home.

Why is that? Nursing homes employ many humane, dedicated, enthusiastic staff. Most facilities are well equipped to take care of our medical needs and activities of daily living.

So what's missing? Based on my experience in nursing homes, most of a resident's time is spent idle. Combine that with the fact that many nursing home residents don't ever get a visitor, and you have a recipe for decline. Who wants to spend days alone, with no visitors and nothing meaningful to do?

If you have your wits about you, you can read, socialize and participate in group activities. But roughly half the people in care facilities have Alzheimer's or some form of dementia. And 40 percent of those have advanced dementia, with very limited ability to engage with others.

It's a depressing set of facts. But there is a way to significantly improve the quality of life for nursing home residents.

In 2011, Claire Ford, a British Churchill fellow, was sent on a 10-week mission to the U.S. to study Alzheimer's programs and bring new, best practices back to the U.K. After visiting 40 programs across the country, she reported many innovations. The problem, she said, was that these programs focused primarily on those with early to mid-stage dementia; the other 40 percent with more advanced dementia were bypassed. The most cost-effective way to reach these folks on a large scale is to use personalized music.

According to Dr. Concetta Tomaino, Executive Director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, if you suffer from dementia, you may no longer recognize your own family member or be able to speak, but if you hear a song from your youth, you'll often "awaken" and begin singing the song with near perfect rhythm. Music memory endures, even when other forms of memory are lost.

Music & Memory, our non-profit organization, promotes the use of digital music players in elder care facilities and wants to see all nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospices keep people connected to their music. With our training, staff work with residents and family members to create personalized music playlists on iPods. Residents listen to their own music throughout the day, with some amazing results.

"Our residents have improved mood, brighter affect and increased socialization," says Melissa Lien, on staff at the Long Island State Veteran's Home in Stony Brook, N.Y. "They tend to verbalize and sing more after listening to their iPods."

Christina Corallo of the North Shore LIJ Orzac Center in Valley Stream, N.Y., concurs about the use of iPods in her facility. "Patients with anxiety and depression are less agitated and appear calmer," she reports. "The music transports them to a happier place in their minds."

Tracking the impact of personalized music at several Canadian nursing homes, Barbara Burnett, Executive Director of the Atlantic Institute on Aging in New Brunswick, found three significant benefits: residents who are not very talkative become more verbal, those who barely move become more mobile, and those who are depressed become happier.

Music & Memory's personalized music program has been adopted by 62 nursing homes in 21 states and Canada -- great progress since our work began in 2008, but less than 1 percent of nursing homes in North America. We want to see that number grow and make personalized music the gold standard for elder care facilities.

As difficult as nursing home life can be, personalized music is one surefire way to make it better. We are all too quick to prescribe medications for depression, anxiety and agitation, to the tune of billions of dollars. Music can reduce the need for such heavy reliance on these drugs, while saving money and improving quality of life.

Whether we want to or not, many of us may end up in a nursing home someday. With access to our own music, we need not feel so alone.

Dan Cohen, MSW, is the founding Executive Director of Music & Memory, a non-profit organization based in Mineola, N.Y., that brings personalized music into the lives of the elderly or infirm through digital music technology, vastly improving quality of life.