Music soothes spirits of seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s

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Mind&Melody musicians engage people with neurological conditions using music. Photo taken by Amanda Smith, photo provided courtesy of Cristina Rodriguez and Mind&Melody.

(NewsNation) — A group connecting musicians with elderly people with neurological diseases is working to stimulate minds and build intergenerational bonds between younger people and older folks alike.

A few years ago, Amelia Rosenfeld learned about the opportunity, called Mind&Melody, which allows her to use her musical skills to help people. She’s spent years as a professional singer and songwriter, entertaining audiences in Miami, Florida.

“I never approached music from anywhere else than entertainment, I would say,” she said.

Music is thought to help improve mood and cognitive function in people who are suffering from dementia.

Rosenfeld had never worked with people who had Alzheimer’s or dementia before, but quickly found herself at ease. She shared her experiences with a woman named Tanagra, who had dementia. Due to her condition, she could only say a few words.

“Since we didn’t have much conversation with Tanagra, all of our communication was about dancing, and singing and playing instruments. And I got to develop this bond with her,” she said. “I was amazed at how much joy she had inside … that hour of music that we had, it was so precious for her.”

Her caretaker told Rosenfeld that after the sessions Tanagra would be noticeably more relaxed and happy.

Mind&Melody launched in 2014. Cristina Rodriguez, the organization’s president, co-founded it after working on a pilot project that year which focused on using music sessions for dementia care.

“I met this gentleman named David at a memory center where we were doing our pilot program,” she said. “And he would sit hunched over his wheelchair, not making much eye contact. And one day we found out he was a professional violinist.

“So we brought him a viola, that’s the instrument we had at the time….and he just began to play flawlessly,” she continued. “He was smiling from ear to ear. It was the first time that I saw the real David. And that was when I realized that I needed to be doing this work.”

Mind&Melody’s musicians at work. Photo taken by Kimi Squires, photo provided courtesy of Cristina Rodriguez and Mind&Melody.

Sessions are either one-on-one or in group settings like senior homes. Some seniors will play along with instruments while others will sing or dance. In order to engage with individuals who hail from older generations, musicians will often pick music from past eras.

“What music works best for this population is usually (from) the ’30s to ’70s,” Rodriguez said, adding with a laugh that because the population is aging, they expect to be playing Britney Spears songs soon.

The program is currently being studied in a formal research study, but in the meantime, Mind&Melody uses mood surveys that allow participants to explain how they’re feeling before and after sessions.

“Most of them would rate…’I’m feeling okay,’ and then after the session [the] majority of them are feeling amazing,” she said.

Rodriguez emphasized that we shouldn’t expect the program to be able to cure Alzheimer’s, which is a complicated ailment. She also noted Mind&Melody’s virtual program, which it offers alongside the in-person one, isn’t for everyone.

“It doesn’t work for seniors that are more severe,” she said. “Once they’re not recognizing their reality, they can’t understand that there’s a screen in front of them. So that becomes very challenging, whereas in person we are able to connect with those individuals.”

While she awaits the results of the formal study, participants’ experiences give Rodriguez confidence about the program’s value.

“When you see the eye contact, the light hand touches, the smiles, the laughter, we know that these two generations are connecting,” she said. “Music sparks memories for dementia and it’s incredible to see how during these exchanges relationships are built.”

Since its inception, Mind&Melody has now put on around 6,000 sessions. It also has a program that works with children and serves clientele as far north as Canada.

For Rosenfeld, the experience has been so rewarding for her that she has been taking part since 2018. She offered encouragement to other musicians who may want to take part.

“As long as you go with kindness, there’s not much to it…. if you go with a happy attitude and they will just be contagious, they will absorb that,” she said.

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