Can music be a cure? Letitia Rogers says yes, in the right circumstances.
“In my personal life, music was a great way to get to know people,” she says. She’s a San Diego-based Hollywood movie music expert. There ain’t a singer she doesn’t know. “You’re in the cab. The cab driver is being quiet, and it’s like ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Africa.’ ‘Where in Africa?’ ‘Nigeria.’ And so, you say ‘Oh. Do you like Timi Dakolo, D’Prince?’ Nigerian musicians. And suddenly this person opens up. If you ask someone their favorite song, they’ll tell you a title. But if you actually ask them why it’s their favorite song, then their life unfolds. History unfolds! Geography. ‘Oh, I listened to that when I was a kid in Israel.’ ‘Oh, my mom used to sing that to me.’ Or, ‘It reminded me of when I was in the army.’ Or, ‘When I was a pilot during World War Two.’ All of a sudden, people open up.”
What awakened her to the medical possibilities of music was a documentary clip someone sent her. “It was of this old man in a nursing home who didn’t recognize his daughter, was very physically withdrawn, and quite sad. So they hunted down his favorite music, and then they put an iPod headset on him. And he went from all hunched over and disconnected to... his body changed! He straightened up. His eyes opened up. He became communicative. He started telling stories about his childhood.
“I was really just, wow! Here’s folk using the favorite songs of people to connect back to them, to spark life into people with, say, Alzheimer’s.”
That clip (from the documentary Alive Inside) inspired her to volunteer in a home in Lemon Grove. “One month I came in and I could hear this yelling, down at the end of the hallway. A heartbreaking yell. I went down, and it was a woman from Iraq with mid-stage dementia. She only spoke Arabic. So I go down there. TV’s on, but in English, and I thought, how lonely! So I called the son, and said ‘We have this program with music, and maybe your mom might enjoy this.’
“And he said, ‘You wouldn’t know the music.’ And because I like Muslim music, I said, ‘Well I thought I’d start with Oum Kalthoum (the famous Egyptian singer).’ And he got quiet, and then he gave me a list. I downloaded the songs, put them on an iPod, and left. I came back the next week, and the nurse’s notes read: ‘Resident singing, smiling, laughing.’ From absolute loneliness and sadness to a completely different experience. And then two other women from Iraq came in. So we were able to build out from there. And every time I passed, one of them would blow me kisses and say ‘Shukran, habibi!’ ‘Thank you, dear.’”
But does it work?
“We have a three-year UC Davis study of 300 skilled nursing facilities [that use personal music programs]. It shows a reduction of [the need for] anti-psychotic, anti-anxiety, anti-depression medication. Also a reduction in falls, and aggressive behaviors. The residents are just happier.”
Rogers is now a regional director for Music and Memory, a non-profit in 6,000 nursing homes, bringing personal choice music to 75,000 patients.