My wife tells a story about the time she found an old box of her grandmother's clothing, and how opening the box summoned a bouquet of smells that, for a moment, summoned her long-dead beloved grandma back to life.
Music is like that, too.
Just ask Dan Cohen, a Long Island social worker who has tapped into the power of music on people with memory loss. For six years, Cohen has been discovering the magical effects of music on nursing home residents who are suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
"The biggest challenge is to find the right music for each person," Cohen said. "It's like when you travel on an airplane and you can select the 'hits of the '60s.' But if they're the wrong songs, it's no good for you."
Cohen has been exploring the way the right songs tap into memory, how people have a kind of personal playlist embedded in their brains, and how tapping into those songs can unlock dormant memories and bring people out of the depths of confusion to make them alive again in dramatic ways.
Cohen's work led to him to start the Music & Memory Project, which is captured in a documentary called "Alive Inside" that premiered in a New York art museum last month.
You can watch a remarkable clip from the documentary at www.ximotionmedia.com. It shows how a nursing home patient with dementia goes from an uncommunicative mumbling state into a clear-voiced person who can answer questions after he has spent time listening with headphones to music that was special to him during his younger days.
"What does music do to you?" Henry, the nursing home patient, is asked after the headphones are removed.
"It gives me the feeling of love," the old man says. "Romance."
The gist of Cohen's project is to collect Apple iPod music players and train nursing home professionals how to use them to unlock their clients minds. So far, he has established a grant program with 50 nursing homes in 15 states.
The first and only nursing home in Florida that is trying out Cohen's idea is Florida Presbyterian Nursing Home in Lakeland, which just got the program running this month.
"We've used music therapy before for pain management, end-of-life and behavioral issues," said Maria Rivera, the administrator at the Florida nursing home. "But we just winged it, and without any procedures."
Rivera applied for a grant from Cohen's group, which provided training and 48 iPods for each of the home's residents. The nursing home is now in the process of developing individual playlists for each of the residents.
"It's taken a while to get their preferences," Rivera said. "If the resident couldn't speak we had to ask family members about what kind of music they like."
She said the program is still in the early phases, and only seven of the 48 iPods have been loaded and launched for use so far.
"It's too soon to tell the effect," Rivera said. "But we do have an end-stage Alzheimer's patient who wasn't verbal at all, and when we introduced music to her, she started humming.
"This was a nice thing to develop."
Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post.
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