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‘Alive Inside’ Documentary Parallels Bethany Village Music Therapy Experiences

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An employee walks into a room of Bethany Village residents who have memory impairments. He raises his trumpet to his lips and plays a familiar tune. He stops and listens for response: “Don’t get around much anymore” everyone sings in perfect time. The trumpeter knows he has touched a place in their memories.

“I have the privilege of witnessing this response to music every day!” says Larisa McHugh, Bethany Village Music Therapist. Bethany Village has had a full-time music therapist on staff for more than 20 years and works extensively with residents who have Alzheimer’s Disease in our senior living community in the Dayton, Ohio area.

A video excerpt from the Alive Inside documentary film, has gone viral on the Internet and shows a previously unresponsive elderly man reacting when a nursing home caregiver plays his favorite music through his earphones. “I feel a band of love, dreams,” said the man, who has dementia. “It gives me the feeling of love, romance!”

The film premiered in New York April 18 and will soon be in theaters.

McHugh, music therapy student interns and music-minded Bethany Village caregivers see how music stirs the emotions and intellects of local residents with memory-related conditions in daily music groups.

“A new resident came to live in the Memory Support Center. She was angry with her family for bringing her here, and she was angry that she could not remember how to get home. She declined every invitation to join music therapy groups. Eventually she came whenever the music therapy group was gathering. She sat in a corner with her arms folded and a scowl on her face. As I was leaving the group one day, she stopped me and said, ‘Thank you.’ I was surprised. She told me, ‘When you are here, I remember.'”

Bethany staff members help residents recall and recreate music that connects with experiences and meaning in their lives, through playing and singing favorite songs and cherished hymns or through participatory instrumental sessions, individually and in groups.

Larisa asks families to name their parents’ favorite radio stations and performers, instruments they played and participation in musical groups. “Familiar music can provide a sense of security and it may be the key to opening a new door.”

When one man moved from his home to the Memory Support Center, he needed assistance with most activities of daily living and he rarely spoke.

“His wife had tears in her eyes as they unpacked his belongings,” a staff member recalls. “I invited them both to attend a music group. He willingly followed me. He shuffled his steps the entire way. I asked his wife to identify any favorite tunes. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘anything from the 1930s or so.’ I started singing ‘I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do).’ Mr. M stood up, walked over to his wife, took her by the hand and danced in the middle of the group. His steps were so smooth and he held her so gently in his arms. It looked like they were floating on a dance floor. Mrs. M told us they went out dancing every Saturday night years ago. She said, ‘He hasn’t held me like that in ages!'”

As dementia progresses and diminishes people’s ability to communicate, it is important to have as much background information as possible and learn residents’ histories so we can remind them of their stories. “In doing so, we are able to connect with them personally,” says McHugh.

One day, a woman sat down on the piano bench next to Larisa and opened a hymnal.

“I wondered what she was thinking and what she might be looking for. She held the book up a little closer, analyzing the page in front of her. Then she placed the book on the piano and said, ‘Let’s try this one.’ I played as requested, then she selected another piece. This routine continued for some time. She closed her eyes and swayed to the music as I played, then she gave me a little pat on the leg before selecting the next hymn. It seemed like she was finding the music she needed, and I was committed to providing it. She was a former piano teacher and church organist. Her husband was a pastor and was seated nearby.

“During the last hymn she closed her eyes and bowed her head as if she was deep in thought or in prayer. As I played the last chord she patted me on the leg once again and said ‘Very nice, my dear. You can pay me next week.’ It dawned on me that she was reliving her piano teaching days, so I thanked her for the lesson. She winked at her husband and said, ‘She’s learning.'”

“What wonderful teachers we have around us, if we are fully present and patient as moments unfold, if we ask them to tell us more and respond genuinely,” Larisa adds.

For information about our support group for families and caregivers of individuals with memory impairments, read about the Bethany Village Alzheimer’s support group or contact Meg Wulfeck or Artie Taylor for more information.

Written by Bethany Village

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