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Real-world reminder of the dangers of a tiny study Date: 04/20/16

By Sheila Hagar

As reporters we are constantly parachuting into situations and exiting again just as quickly. A great many of our stories are written from intense-but-limited observations of a situation.

Sometimes we get lucky and are allowed to do long term projects in which we can fully immerse our professional selves for a longer time but, in today's newsroom, those times are disappearing.

Mostly we're here, we take notes, record 60 seconds of video ("Don't do anything longer," the web editor cautions. "No one will hang on past a minute, two tops.") and we're back out. Follow up is usually done via phone, emails or messaging apps.

If I had been doing a story on a recent "assignment," that methodology would have been the wrong approach and a disservice to readers and the story.

My boss, Rick Doyle, a longtime guitar player, began taking voice lessons about a year ago. His voice teacher finally pushed hard enough to get him out of his comfortable nest – she told him to start performing in public.

Rick decided to begin where he considered the entertainment bar to be set low and the audience receptive to just about any level of talent.

Nursing homes.

Not only do such places house folks who are no longer very free to choose their own live entertainment, but the elder care industry on the whole spends little money on luxuries like outside programs.

A surpising reaction

I went along to support my shy boss on his first gig. I arrived just as Rick was launching into his planned hour of a mix of music. His nerves showed, but he was giving it all he had with a wide repertoire of old Western, some ‘50s and ‘60s hits, show tunes and folk songs.

With each one, Rick introduced a bit of information about the song, such as talking about what television show it came from, like Roy Roger's "Happy Trails." As uncomfortable as he was, Rick made eye contact around the room and spoke gently to encourage engagement.

Nothing. No one smiled, no one looked him in the eye. A few fingers kept time for a measure or three. A foot tapped a few times, then stopped.

 I watched, waiting for an elderly brain to grab onto a chorus and a light bulb of recognition to come on.

Nope. Although I left before it was over, Rick reported everyone just sat there until the end, then sat some more. No one talked to him as they were finally led off to supper.

Rick went to another nursing home two days later, where he reported there was slightly more enthusiasm, but not a lot.

I emailed Liz Seegert, AHCJ’s core topic leader on aging, looking for a story possibility:

"I'm checking if you can point me toward any reading about physiological changes in facial muscles as we age. I went to support my editor (I genuinely wanted to, even!) as he played guitar and sang in public for the first time at a local nursing home. Although I witnessed feet and finger tapping, audience faces were nearly immobile, displaying only neutrality about the music they were hearing.

It made me wonder when and why that happens to us, and what the sociological effect is.

Got anything for me?"

Liz, like all of us, reported she had heard the opposite – music is medicine for the aging brain. Yet I had seen the opposite with my own eyes and wondered why this case appeared to be different.

I noodled around a bit and found nothing. Because I work at a daily newspaper, the beast had to be fed and I had to move on. But I checked in with my boss a few weeks later. How is the music industry treating you? I asked in jest.

Rick told me he had seen a transformation in his audiences, I told Liz in a follow-up email:

"My boss had a return gig at these nursing homes and is reporting the first, more somber group has ‘woken up’ and is asking for certain songs, moving their hands and feet more and interacting more. Sounds like they were somewhat starved for live music.”

The whole thing makes me cry a little. My boss has a huge selection of folk songs, Beatles stuff, old country and western, and some gospel songs. I think about how those must trigger memories by the minute. The residents sit through the whole hour and no one is eager to leave afterward, even as dinner is being served.

This came about because my shy boss was coaxed to try out his public signing voice for an audience by his voice teacher. He wanted to start low key, where the bar might be set low. I doubt he could have recognized what joy he was about to bring to others."

What could have been missed

Since then, Rick has become a hit at the two homes he goes to once a month. Residents have requests at the ready, and they don't like to see him leave. Sitting next to him on his impromptu stage has become the place to be.

Others in town have caught wind of his live appearances and want him to sing elsewhere.

If I had been doing an article based on that one afternoon, I would not have seen the true story. It brought home the danger of relying on small observational studies to form an opinion of a therapy, treatment or concept.

I wish we all had the luxury of seeing a non-emergent situation for more than an hour or two for our daily reporting.

Sheila Hagar has been a columnist for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in Washington since 1998. Her beat covers health and social services in the Walla Walla area. Hagar also writes on a regular basis for the paper's Arts & Entertainment tab. She has covered diverse topics, including being gay in the conservative Seventh-day Adventist culture, Medicaid funding for braces and doctor shortages dissatisfaction at the VA.