keeping_the_spirit_aliveRecently I watched a YouTube video clip from Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary film Alive Inside, which explores the therapeutic effect of music on the elderly. In the film, a virtually nonresponsive patient who has been in a nursing home for ten years is transformed when his caretaker gives him an iPod loaded with music from his youth. His face becomes animated, his eyes open wide, and he moves in time with the music. And the effects don’t stop there. Even after the music is taken away, his cognitive abilities show a marked improvement; whereas before getting hooked up to the iPod he was barely able to answer yes-or-no questions, after listening to the music he engages vigorously in a conversation about music. He even sings!

Music isn’t the only kind of stimulation that nurtures the elderly and enriches their lives. A few years ago I used to take my two llamas (yes, llamas) to visit the old folks in different assisted living centers and nursing homes. Boy, that really got people going! “Is that a camel?” “I used to live on a farm, and our family had horses.” “I’ve never seen an animal like that before!” “Can I touch it?” I watched little white-haired ladies gasp in surprise and giggle when one of the llamas bent and “kissed” their hair. Gruff old men would smile and feed grain to the animals. There was always a big, lively gathering of the residents in a central room or courtyard, and whenever a resident couldn’t make it out of their room, they were thrilled that I brought the llamas to them – right to their bedside!

We all know that elderly people benefit from these kinds of stimulation. They need an opportunity to tap in to the essence of who they are at the very core of their being. Just because someone is unable to move around as much as he or she used to doesn’t mean he or she is content to be still; and just because someone’s cognitive abilities are deteriorating doesn’t mean he or she is disinterested in engaging with others. Music, animals, dance, and art all enhance our sense of being alive in a very expressive and creative way. As an elder loved one ages, it is easy to get stuck on treating his or her physical and cognitive decline and to forget an important piece of the picture: emotional well-being. Really this should be at the top of the list, because compared to an elder who becomes lonely, depressed, and disinterested, a happy person is generally healthier, and an engaged person may retain cognitive function longer.

When thinking about moving your elder loved one to assisted living or nursing home care, make sure you look at the attention the facility gives to its residents’ emotional well-being. Make sure there will be activities that appeal to your loved one. Reassure your loved one that transitioning to a residential facility does not mean entering a depressing or boring stage of life; it can be an opportunity to connect with others and experience new activities.

If you need help finding the facility that best suits your loved one’s needs and will keep his or her spirit alive, get in touch.