After his friend Bernie suffered a stroke, Altadena author Elliot Michael Gold began visiting him at a rehab facility in Tarzana. Desperate for a way to communicate, Gold bought Bernie a satellite radio subscription and began playing music to him during their time together.
“I’d go visit him in Tarzana every single day and I’d talk to him,” Gold said. “I don’t believe stroke victims can’t communicate, as many people think. I got XM Radio as a subscription for him, and put on ’50s music full time. Every once in a while, I’d go in there and he’d remember the music.”
Although Gold’s friend passed away, he was left with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the staff members and a crushing sadness for the residents.
“I met all these wonderful people in these facilities in Tarzana and Reseda and I thought there are these people there who are bedridden, no one comes to see them,” he remembers.
So Gold kept playing music for seniors afflicted with dementia-related diseases, and today he is four years into “Rememories for Seniors” (Rememoriesforseniors.com), a book and a project of the same name that works with seniors, stroke victims, Alzheimer’s and dementia patients at assisted-living facilities by using music to stimulate cognitive function and promote reminiscing.
“I research the residents, their musical favorites, their favorite foods and talk to caregivers for detailed info on each person,” says the 70-year-old Gold. “Every week I interview another resident with Alzheimer’s or dementia. It takes me a couple of days to edit it, and I’ve completed three dozen now. I’m trying to recruit others to do this because there are many seniors who already do what I do.”
Name Your Tune
Evidence shows there is a link between music and memory, supporting its beneficial role in helping those with memory and other cognitive-functioning challenges. In 2014, researchers in the University of Texas at Arlington Psychology Department revealed promising new evidence that confirms the connection between musical expertise and long-term memory.
According to the UTA website, “Heekyeong Park, assistant professor of psychology, and graduate student James Schaeffer used electroencephalography (EEG) technology to measure electrical activity of neurons in the brains of 14 musicians and 15 non-musicians and noted processing differences in the frontal and parietal lobe responses.”
All the musicians had been playing classical music for more than 15 years, and they outperformed the non-musicians in neural responses on working memory tasks. However, when long-term memory was tested, the enhanced sensitivity was only found in memory for pictures, according to a report found at uta.edu.
“Musically trained people are known to process linguistic materials a split second faster than those without training, and previous research also has shown musicians have advantages in working memory,” Park told the UTA News Center website.
According to the February 15, 2013 edition of NeuroImage magazine, researchers in another study found that there was “large-scale cognitive, motor and limbic brain circuitry dedicated to acoustic feature processing during listening to a naturalistic stimulus.” The same areas of the brain were active no matter what kind of music was playing.
“There are people with extreme dementia and Alzheimer’s and people think they can’t remember. Pardon my language, but that’s bullshit. You play the music and they remember. I’ve interviewed people with extreme dementia who can’t remember much of anything, but three bars into a song and they can remember it verbatim. The trick, he says, “is you have to know what kind of music they like.”
Message in the Music
Using melodies to help dementia patients is just the latest part of Gold’s 50-year love affair with music. Like any great love affair, it’s seen its share of tumult, but he’ll be the first to tell you how satisfying the ride has been. From interviews as a photojournalist with rock music legends like Grace Slick and hanging with the country’s first integrated motorcycle club, the Chosen Few, to his devotion to preserving the music and memories of four decades of musical evolution through the stories of those who came of-age during those times, Gold’s life is the stuff of which biopics are made.
During the social activism the 1960s and ’70s, Gold gained a valuable awareness of the role music can play when it comes to working with people, young and old, regardless of political affiliations or socio-economic status.
“I always felt that music was important and that there was a message in it,” he says.
Gold’s enthusiasm for sound and how it can heal and enhance our lives began in primary school. As dyslexics growing up in Detroit, he and his twin sister struggled to learn in an environment not always accommodating of their educational challenges.
“In dealing with my dyslexia and in order to concentrate, I had to have music all the time. I kept a transistor [radio] under my pillow,” he recalls.
As he got older, Gold said he learned about the power of music in the counter-culture movement and its ability to empower people.
“In college, I was studious and got into the ’60s and the protest music and fell in love with that,” he says.
He later moved to Altadena not too long after graduating from college in 1967, and has lived in the area ever since.
Gold has written several other books, including “A Mother’s Tears: Mothers Remember Their Sons Lost in Iraq,” published in 2004, and “The Chosen Few: A 40-year Look at an Outlaw Motorcycle Club,” about the first integrated motorcycle club in California, published in 2013.
In later years, he developed new theories about music and its effects on the mind. He coined the term “sociotechnology,” or, as he explains it, “the application of technology and assertion that it is more important to figure out how to apply technology than to analyze it.”
To that end, his “Rememories for Seniors” project has been a blessing, because its focus on music and the stories and reminiscing it evokes become a unifying factor for families.
“I go in and do the interview and provide an audio CD of the interview mixed with music, make copies for the residents and copies for the families, and they reply in tears because they have never heard some of these memories. The other thing is that these children and other family members; they don’t have an archive of the memories, but their relative’s voice is their archive. My job is to produce and archive memories they can have for the rest of their lives.”