Across from Veterans Park in Milwaukee resides a tall building. In the sky are grey clouds as the temperature grew cold and the waters of Lake Michigan crash upon the shore. The day may seem gloomy and dull, but not for one place, in a room where music alters the mood –  the Jewish Home and Care Center, a senior living center. On the second floor, a woman with a pink decorative head scarf strums the guitar singing “Shalom Aleichem,” a Jewish traditional song that she often sings with the music groups that she leads twice a week at the nursing home.

Video: Pakou Lee

Amy Gelfman is a private contractor who was hired to sing with the residents there. While she leads a music group with the residents on the second floor, an elderly man’s vocals soars over the room. Ilya Vernik, 98, shines like a star as he sings into the microphone that Amy brought to the music session. Vernik is a resident at the nursing home, who resides in the second floor. Others around him either sit in silence, or deep in thought, lightly tapping their feet to the beat of the music or bowing their heads down and closing their eyes as music pierces through the stereo that Geflman brought, along with a woven basket of maracas.  But when Gelfman sings a song that they know, they light up and sing along such as the song “Chiribim Chiribom,” an upbeat song mixed with jazz elements and a catchy melody.

“Music is always a place where you can reach them,” said Gelfman.

During her one-on-one session with Vernik, the music she plays definitely resonates with him. From upbeat songs to melancholy ones, Vernik sings along and shakes a red maraca. While singing “My Yiddishe Mama,” a song about the loss of one’s mother. Vernik begins to tear up.

Music has always been able to do more than just for enjoyment for the ears. Research studies on music is plentiful. Research has shown that music reduces stress and anxiety. There’s also studies that have shown how music can regulate the mood whereas listening to upbeat and sad music can lift your mood.

In 2008, Dan Cohen launched the Music and Memory organization where a personalized music playlist is used for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s to help with memory loss. As of October 2016, 3,000 nursing facilities have been certified as music and memory nursing home. In Wisconsin, the Department of Health Services decided to launch an initiative to improve the quality of life to those in 100 nursing facilities to participate in Music and memory program.  Of one of those 100 was the Jewish Home and Care Center.

For one resident at the Jewish Home and Care Center, music drives a reaction and every one can see it when he listens to his personalized music playlist in his ipod. Steven, takes part in the Music and Memory program at the Jewish Home and Care Center and when he listens to his playlist filled with his favorite songs and artists such as The Beatles, Joni Mitchell to Mozart and Jewish music, his response always seems to touch everyone there including the staffs. His wife, Shari Weingrod, has seen his reactions too when she played him The Beatles, tears were running down her husband’s eyes.

“It makes me think that there’s some part of the brain no matter how it deteriorates,” said Shari. “And that you can’t grasp on to a lot of it, language and things that are so important that, that is the language that seemingly for him that he is not losing.”

Music has always been a part of Steven’s life. He played guitar. He was in a band. He loved going to symphonies and music concerts. During his diagnosis of dementia, he was able to function enough to be active in the community by raising money for non-profit organizations especially the ones that specializes in art. Even Shari, herself, has a deep passion for music as she is a pianist. Their love for music was what connected them from the start.

Music in healthcare has continue to be used whether it includes hiring music therapists or using music volunteers. Andrew Neary from the Milwaukee Center for Independence says the music used in the therapy sessions are not so much about singing a beautiful opera.

“Music therapy is the use of music to address a non-music therapeutic goal,” says Neary, a music therapist at the non-profit that serves individuals with special needs.  For example, integrating music in a session where a client has respiratory include singing activities to work on breathing exercises. Or at times, music can be used simply for reducing stress and anxiety or alleviate pain.

Neary has been working for MCFI for at least 5 years. He started out as a self-taught musician after giving up on music lessons though his ability to learn on his own led him to take music into a professional career. He plays numerous instruments such as the piano, bass, guitar, cello, and anything percussion.

“The music that I used for music therapy is functional music,” says Neary. Rather than making sure the music sounds beautiful, Neary said his goal is to use music to drive a response as he specializes in neurological music.

Neary says the music used in a music therapy session depends on the condition of the patients, however; some do get to request their favorite music. Some even request pop music such as Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. However, the goal of using music as an intervention is to improve a client’s emotional, physical, and cognitive needs besides the enjoyment.

Whether music intervention involves different types of music, the music activities plays an important role to the patients of the healthcare. And music activities definitely soars over at the Jewish Home and Care Center. Kimberly Rosenau, the activity leader, says there are more than one music activity that goes on at the nursing home such as Dinner Music where music is played in the background as residents enjoy their meal and Singing to Be Well.

“Music happens on a daily basis here,” says Rosenau.“ it can be taken into a lot of different forms.”

During a music group session, Gelfman plays Cat Stevens “Wild World” to Steven. He moves his body a little bit and stares at the staffs as they sang along with the lyrics. He opens his mouth slightly, trying to mimic.

Shari says, “I think it is profoundly influences something in his brain and in his heart for sure.”