Aging Gracefully (Or Not): Nursing homes

Aging Gracefully (Or Not): Nursing homes

Natalie Gelman

I watched the documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory.” It was made in 2014.

A social worker by the name of Dan Cohen decided to try working with residents in nursing homes who have Alzheimer’s disease. He conducted a study introducing them to music that was a part of their history. He created an iPod for each person after he/she revealed types of music, musicians or specific pieces that had been significant. If the person was unable to communicate these preferences, they selected music that was popular during their life, and he also considered where they grew up.

The response to the music far surpassed anything that was anticipated. One person was shown interacting with another human being for the first time. Many began to communicate. Overt characteristics of Alzheimer’s appeared less frequently. Activity and interaction increased. Some residents were able to return home.

Cohen tried to raise money to make these iPods available to nursing homes everywhere. Oliver Sacks, a nationally-known neurologist affiliated with a few nursing homes, said he could write a prescription for $1,000 worth of anti-depressants a month for a person with Alzheimer’s, but could not obatian the $40 per person it would cost to get the iPod. Cohen tried innumerable ways to get funding.

One nursing home was concerned about the lack of visitors for it residents. The head of the facility reached out to schools and religious groups to ask people form relationships with residents and visit when possible. Two teenage girls came regularly to visit a woman. They learned about the iPods and posted an item on YouTube. Suddenly, money was donated. Leave it to young people to know how to use social networking. Now, 36 nursing homes that Cohen worked with have the equipment.

It was exciting and touching to see the positive impact the music had on these people, and that theme alone was inspirational.

However, another theme has to do with experiencing life in a nursing home. That was not inspirational. It was depressing and frightening.

Sacks, who worked with Cohen, said that all of the homes he been in have been like “small hospitals” - cold, pristine, and uninviting. The environment completely lacks warmth.

He acknowledged that the staff can be caring and attentive, but there are not enough workers to form close relationships with all of the residents.

In fact, to look at the film in the multitude of nursing homes it was filmed in, I would be inclined to call the residents patients instead of residents. Many sit in wheelchairs in the hallways, rooms where they sleep, or general meeting rooms. For most of the day there is no stimulation or interaction.

As I age, I am now focused on these places as prospects for me. That feels scary and unacceptable.

My husband and I spoke afterward and reiterated a shared commitment to never be placed in one of these facilities. I will seek a way to die first.

Natalie Gelman can be contacted at Her web site is