Rockin' the (nursing home) casbah

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer

While idly watching the Grammy Awards broadcast on Sunday night, I tried to keep a mostly apathetic eye on various social media networks. It was here that I learned — among other pretty useless information — that an awful lot of young people have no idea who Paul McCartney is.

But then, during the Beach Boys' 50th anniversary performance, I saw that one flippant Twitter user describe the Beach Boys' set as “straight up nursing home.”

First, I rolled my eyes at the notion that baby boomers can't rock (see: Sir Paul). But then I considered that the glib Tweeter might have actually made a good point.

Music therapy — which no doubt includes rock ‘n' roll — is alive and well in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, particularly in the realm of treating Alzheimer's and dementia.

This certainly was the case for author Cecile Pomerantz who wrote the book “Alzheimer's: A Mother Daughter Journey,” about being the primary caregiver for her mother when she developed Alzheimer's.

Pomerantz told me that she relied heavily on the music of Tito Puente, Soncho Panchez and Celia Cruz to motivate her mom to perform various tasks.

“As soon as my mother heard a song with a Latin beat, she'd shift her focus directly to the joy she felt and start dancing,” Pomerantz recalls. “The response was so consistent that I learned to carry my iPhone with an iTunes playlist of all her favorite salsa songs, playing the music when we were in the midst of negotiating a shower, or convincing her to take her pills, or whatever other activity that made her uncooperative.”

Click here for a video of Pomerantz dancing with her mother.

Pomerantz said her mother's reputation as a lover of dancing and music carried over to the assisted living facility she eventually moved to. And the workers there were more than happy to encourage her passion for salsa dancing.

“They knew that they could depend on her infectious dancing style to motivate the other residents to do the same. She could convert a nursing home hallway into Don Cornelius-style ‘Soul Train' happening,” Pomerantz said.

Consider also country music legend and frequent Beach Boys collaborator Glen Campbell, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday's Grammy broadcast.

The CBS program “Sunday Morning” profiled Campbell and his struggle with Alzheimer's last weekend.

Despite his diagnosis, Campbell recently kicked off his farewell tour of the United States in Europe, where he's performing with friends and family. While his short-term memory is noticeably worse, as seen in the profile's interview segment, he clearly remembers intricate guitar riffs and lyrics without a struggle. But it's the moments between songs that he has a harder time improvising.

The “Sunday Morning” segment featured footage of one of these moments. Campbell concludes the song “Galveston” and then immediately launches into it again, until his daughter gently stops him. It's a heartbreaking moment to watch, but he laughs it off later, saying good-naturedly “If you do it perfect, they'll want it that way every time!”

If you still aren't convinced that nursing home musical performances don't have the potential to produce world class music and dancing, check out this New York Times story about nursing home residents in the Bronx collaborating with Carnegie Hall musicians.

Being elderly or infirm doesn't mean someone can't perform soul stirring music — it just might take the right caregiver to help make it happen.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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