Music therapy dates back to ancient times. In our country, the process of healing through music took off after World War I, when it was used in veteran's hospitals to ease the pain and suffering of trauma victims. Today, music therapy remains a viable form of treatment for veterans who have physical and emotional problems. Local radio station WXPN seems to have had this in mind when they launched a program called Project Playback. Taking music therapy to a new level, they've introduced some of the region's oldest and frailest veterans to the art of songwriting with the help of a Grammy award-winning artist. For WHYY's Impact of War series, Jennifer Lynn reports.
It's naptime - at the Veterans Community Living Center, a retirement home in West Philly. But there's nary a yawn in a large, sunny gathering space for about 20 residents…as singer songwriter Scot Sax enters the room.
Scot: "All right, all right, how you doing? How's everybody doin'?
Sax sets down his guitar and a laptop. A semi-circle of men and women, mostly in wheelchairs, fans out in front of him. It's a cast of the serene and the silver-haired, holding instruments - there are claves, maracas, and clusters of bells.
Scot: "All right, let's start some kinda groove."
For the past few months, Sax has volunteered to write and record original songs with this crew. It's a far cry from warming up for The Who or writing songs for country greats like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw - both of which Sax has done.
Scot: "I realized that I was about to embark on a writing session with folks between the ages of 80 and a hundred…that don't play instruments. I'm not sure how present they are at all times. Some of their heads are turned or their eyes are shut. Or they're slouched over…and then you start a song and they pick up a maraca or a tambourine and, honest to god, their rhythm is dead on the money. They are completely there. They just needed to be activated and music is a great activator."
Sax is onto something, says staff psychologist Aggie Kleczek. Residents here at the CLC, many of whom have dementia, often find it difficult to listen to complex language and to express themselves. But with music, it's different.
"This is the one thing that engages them and makes them feel a little bit more that they are a part of the environment and they can respond and enjoy it."
Music helps in another way, say Kleckek. Veterans with dementia and PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, risk losing coping skills to deal with instrusive memories, as their cognition declines.
"They become easily agitated, have anger outbursts, and I think the music is a way to allow them to focus on something pleasurable. It's providing them with something that they can experience and allow them to disengage from some of the negative memories."
Today, Sax has a hard time getting folks to open up. He leads by example: playing his own songs or strumming basic chords in hopes that something bubbles up…a word, a line, anything that resembles lyrics.
Scot: "These are words from last week's song…sitting around with old heroes, rehashing memories. I can't forget the famous vet you forgot to remember. That was from you, Miss BB (hear her say I don't remember). Exactly, you forgot to remember the forgetting to remember line. "
Scot: "I'm connecting with this woman, Miss BB. Miss BB is the most verbal. She was a nurse in the war. It was hard for her to see some of the things she saw and she's kinda made it a practice, as she put it, forgetting to remember. I mean who knows what she's seen."
I find out Miss BB was an Army nurse in World War II and the Korean War. She likes to read the Bible, and when she was young, she'd make up songs.
Miss BB: "If you're in a situation and something's happening, instead of worrying about it, you could write a song about it. It relieves you of depression and stuff. Write a song and get it off your mind. Music is medicine for the soul!"
Miss BB's adage rings true for Sax who says music is the great connector.
Scot: "You can meet somebody that you have nothing in common with whatsoever, you have completely opposite lives, but as soon as the music starts, we have everything in common."
In the unlikely coming together of Sax and this group, the blues is the muse Sax has been hoping for.
Scot: "Mr. Broderick, you got anything for me? We need something to kick it off. You got any magic phrases?"
- the man singing the blues
Sax says songwriting's an easy equation. All you have to do is tell the truth and mean it. No need to tell that to this man with the magic phrases.
Local veterans' groups pleased with new PTSD regulations
July 14, 2010
Local Veterans groups and Veterans' Affairs officials are applauding new federal legislation regarding benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Maiken Scott reports from WHYY's Behavioral Health Desk.
Gone and forgotten...until now
June 1, 2010
Hundreds of cremated remains of former soldiers have sat for decades, unclaimed, on shelves of funeral homes in New Jersey. A group of living veterans are giving the dead the burial they never had.
Much has been written about the wars being fought by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. In her new book, The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers, Nancy Sherman probes the inner war being fought by service men and women. A philosopher and psychoanalyst who teaches ethics at Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval Academy, Sherman examines the ethical and moral dilemmas faced by modern warriors, and the lingering effects their choices have for the rest of their lives, and U.S. society.
The Impact of War at Home
About 4,000 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team are expected to deploy to Iraq later this year. Hundreds of these men and women live in the Philadelphia area. They include business owners, computer programmers, teachers, students and cooks, and they are wives, husbands, and parents. As the soldiers gear up for war, their family members prepare for their absence. Over the next year, in conjunction with National Public Radio and three other Pennsylvania public radio stations, WHYY will tell the stories of these soldiers, their families and how they cope emotionally, and financially, with the absence of their loved ones.
Additional coverage on the effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts on soldiers and their families can be found at War Torn - a series by The New York Times. The articles and multimedia tell the stories of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings, or been charged with them, after coming home.