Let me tell you about Dan.
You may have heard of him, a few years back a video of his work went massively viral and caused quite a stir. The video in question was a nursing home patient named Henry. Henry had dementia to such a degree that he would hardly react to people talking to him, couldn't remember which daughter of his was trying to talk to him, and generally spent most of his time hunched over whatever chair he was in.
In short, there wasn't much of a life there.
Then came Dan, and his project to use the power of music to awaken this elderly man. He played him music, and Henry came alive. After listening to a few songs, it was like a fog had been lifted, and he was able to communicate and speak to people once more, and share things about his life that no-one had been able to get out of him before.
If you haven't seen it yet, you can watch it here.
Dan had come across something incredible, that music had the power to reach into those deep parts of the mind and pull the memories and pieces of self that had become lost. He'd found out they are not lost forever, merely hiding.
I had seen this clip some years ago but had never actually watched the documentary that it came from. This evening I did that. I watch Alive Inside, the documentary that followed Dan and his powerful journey through the nursing homes of America.
Dan and his filmmaker stumbled across a great many secrets and truths during the three years that the documentary followed him. A lot of those hit me harder than I thought they would.
My own grandmother had been stricken with Alzheimers and, if I'm being honest, I did not take it well. I held up well enough while she stayed at our home, as I knew it was hard for my parents too, so having a breakdown about it would not have helped anyone.
During this time, I knew she was still the same person she had been, she was kind, caring, with an independent streak a mile wide. Unfortunately, those parts of herself which gave her the experience to be independent were gone. She no longer had the tools to be herself. The personality was intact, but the building blocks of who she was, were missing.
Eventually, it came to be too much and she went to a nursing home. To my shame, I never once went to see her while she was there. Father went frequently, but I could always see in his face and eyes just how hard it was for him, not just to see his mother like that, but to see all the residents there who were suffering just for lack of companionship.
It ate at him, and I was afraid that I would never be able to handle it as well as him.
My grandmother passed away and I never said goodbye.
So why is that? Why was I so afraid of that nursing home?
For that matter, why are we so afraid of ageing? Why do we fear becoming elders in this world? Why is it a more and more common opinion to talk about doctor assisted suicide? Or even have the thought of 'I hope I die before I become that old'? Why do we fear such a natural part of our life cycle?
The medical industry has been driven by an image of people as being machines. Society itself is guilty of this. We are judged in our worth in jobs by how closely we can match an ideal of a machine-like perfection. When we are sick, it's because something in us is broken, our chemical levels aren't where they should be, and all that we have to do is fix the part, or turn a dial. We do this through medication, and procedures, endlessly popping pills and booking appointments, until finally, the machine ceases to function and grinds to its final ignominious end.
What Dan came across, was the truth that we are not machines. We are humans. From the earliest days to our final days, we connect, we yearn, we learn, we dream. Giving music to the elderly was a gift of connection, connecting them to their lost selves. It was a gift of compassion, a man taking time out of his life to connect with these elderly. It was a gift of life, for music has within it, its own power to heal, to move, to connect.
Dan showed me why I was afraid of these homes. Why I never wanted to go into them. Because in those walls, we are no longer people, were just patients, old machines to keep going a little while longer. In that context, speaking of dying before we become that old isn't so alien a thing, after all, who wants to live for another 10 years in a place where we cannot be human? Where there is no freedom? Where we are told what to eat, what pills to have, where we can go, and what we can do? If we would not accept that at this point in our lives, why would we accept it then?
Dan's mission was to connect. If people were visited, if people connected, if people loved, in these homes, would it be such a terrible place? Why is it when our elderly reach a certain point, we just hide them away and try to forget they exist?
I don't have the answer for that. But I do know that we can change it. If we find the people like Dan, and rally around them, we can change it. If we become the kind of people who volunteer, who visit, who just talk, then we can change it. If we love, it will change. Then maybe we won't be afraid of age. Maybe then, we can bring back the power of being an Elder. Maybe then we can let our older generation give back to us in the form of stories, wisdom, and an appreciation for connection. Maybe we can.
If you want to know more about Dan and his work, you can check out his website here.