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music holds the key...

Sound Connections Internship, George's blog post - Winter 2018

My name is George and I'm almost finished with a Bachelor of the Arts degree at Evergreen State College. My academic focus is Ethnomusicology, which can best be described as study of music and people. I was excited about the opportunity to work with Sound Connections because I saw the internship as an extension of the academic work I was doing at Evergreen. I expected it to be like doing fieldwork - I would be given the chance to observe the reactions music inspires in a group of people who are largely underrepresented in society and the national conversation. The results of the internship were mixed. The work itself is not always glamorous or inspiring, but the experience has been one of the most formative of my life and I truly appreciate the opportunity to communicate with others who are at such a different stage of life than I am.

Caitlin described in detail the system of using ipods as a way to disperse music to the residents. There is an initial "interview" done with the consent of the resident and their family. In these interviews, there is a sheet provided by the Music and Memory program with very broad categories, such as genre, and then more specific examples of world famous musicians in those genres. I believe the intention is to jog the memories of residents who might not be able to recall the names of musicians they enjoy. What I fear, however, is that in keeping this list so general, the opportunity for residents to request specific artists is lost. Many do have personalized playlists which appear to contain lesser known artists on them, but I know that some residents have discontinued the music and memory program for reasons related to boredom. My suggestion would be increased effort on the part of the interviewer to make sure that the resident isn't simply responding to famous musician's names, and that the musicians are further narrowed by specific songs that the residents like. After all, just because one likes a specific artist, that does not mean they enjoy their entire discography.

An interesting experience has been observing those residents for whom music was a special interest in their previous lives. One resident was a yodeler who appeared on the Johnny Carson show; another was a pastor at a church where he was also the music director. Both of these residents are especially enthusiastic about their ipod times and will often stop a different activity like listening to an audio book or watching television to listen to their music instead. All too many residents, however, are more interested in their televisions than listening to music, and who can blame them? Television is designed to be addictive and attention grabbing, and there simply isn't time to go into the psychological and emotional benefits of listening to music. And while I personally am convinced that music has specific medicinal qualities and benefits, the nursing staff [might not value the Music and Memory program the way we'd like.] Those residents who are ordinarily unable to converse freely are often less inhibited when the subject is turned to something familiar from their past, such as songs and artists they love.

So while it is true that the music and memory program has seen positive results, I think that it suffers from inattention and misrepresentation. There needs to be more communication between the volunteers and the nursing staff about what the purpose of the program is. Otherwise it will be confused as simply another activity, like watching a movie or playing bingo.

Final Thoughts - 6/4/2018

At the end of the day, it is a privilege to work with the elderly. I often thought while working at the facility that it is simply remarkable the amount of life that these people have lived. The knowledge and experience they possess was, at times, staggering. This is not to say that it was easy work. It could be very sad, challenging, frustrating, and at times felt almost hopeless. Such is the case with people who work with and for humans with debilitating diseases. Alzheimer's and dementia are two of the hardest things to go through and to watch someone battle with. At times, it was easy to dehumanize these people, especially those without the ability to speak or communicate nonverbally. But despite all the hardships it is indeed a privilege and one I shall remember and carry with me for the rest of my life.

My days at the nursing home were at times repetitive but I soon learned that for these elderly people, repetition was key, and even comforting. After multiple visits my name and face would eventually (at least usually) stick in their minds and then I could see their eyes light up with recognition rather than confusion when they saw me. That was a small victory in and of itself. I learned to be patient repeating myself and speaking slowly, to take a step back and put myself in the shoes of these people who are unable to move or speak any quicker than they were.

This is perhaps the way in which I think I have most changed since beginning my work with Sound Connections. It is not often that people in their 20s get to spend days and weeks in the company of people in their 80s and 90s, and without Sound Connections I would likely have not gotten to experience those types of interactions until I was much older, perhaps in my 80s or (god willing) 90s myself. The opportunity was not wasted on me, and I often left the nursing home with an increased vigor to walk and run, live and laugh, after having seen those who can no longer do so without some difficulty if at all.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend the Sound Connections internship enough. It is valuable both to those elderly who so badly need to form connections with human beings beyond the nurses and family members in their day to day lives, but also to the volunteer who can experience a sneak preview of their own old age, perhaps, and demonstrate and practice a little humility and kindness in a world in increasingly desperate need of both.

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