Our community is home to thousands of residents who struggle with memory loss.  Many seniors live in fear of mental decline from dementia or memory impairment including Alzheimer’s Disease.  Likely, this is the reason that so many seniors “joke” about forgetfulness.

Surprisingly, given the stark predictions about the frequency of memory loss, most people do not understand mental decline and what to do about it.  Bright moments are a good example.  Satisfaction in life revolves around significant moments like riding a bike, singing a Christmas carol, graduating from high school, getting married, having a child.  The feelings created by those moments last a lifetime and often carry people through dark hours.  But what happens to those moments when memory fades or even appears to be lost forever? Just as important, is it possible to experience new moments in daily life?

About two years ago, a Senior Service organization relocated to North Philadelphia bringing a different approach to addressing memory loss and social needs for people with modest to advanced memory impairment.  Homelink’s adult day center, located at 2753 Ridge Avenue, is structured to help participants recapture past bright moments to once again feel a sense of fun, contentment and the safety of those special times.  A variety of approaches are used to call forth those experiences, including chair dancing, reminiscing activities, art, storytelling, exercise, yoga, qi gong, games and special celebrations.  Perhaps the most impactful tool is music.

Certainly, music is a part of life for all of life.  From children's songs to jingles to church hymns to popular music, everybody’s life to some degree includes melodies, rhythms and movement.  Consider the many aspects of music:  instruments, vocals, clapping, body swaying, fingers snapping… all reflecting a person’s character, emotions, values and heart.  Music is even more powerful when it is a live experience shared with others.  The positive interaction between musician and audience creates a shared community that brings energy far beyond a song on the radio.

Music Therapy is the professional use of music as a tool to achieve non-musical goals.  (https://www.musictherapy.org/)   A board-certified music therapist assesses a person’s emotional well-being, mental and intellectual abilities, and social interaction skills through musical responses.  This assessment allows the music therapist to gain a better understanding of how a person lived, and subsequently determine what musical interventions might call them out of their shell.  The therapist then plans activities, events and experiences that have the best possibility to experience bright moments in the present.  Music stimulates the senses and can often create a better quality of of life for those with memory impairment.  

 There is also a physical reason that music therapy is so beneficial to improving mental, physical social and communication functions.  Language is processed in the left side of the brain while the right side processes creative abilities.  As a consequence, people who seldom speak in complete sentences can respond to music stimulation to verbalize or sing lyrics.  A man attending the Center who had not spoken in two years stood and joined in the singing of Amazing Grace. 

At Homelink, music therapist Greg Lazzaro is a gifted musician with guitar and voice, but his real gift is his energetic spirit that helps participants to engage.  His interaction creates the interest and energy to bring out people and build a group that is a source of encouragement.  When feeling secure and lively, positive dynamics happen.

After assessing the participants, Greg defines groups based on level of functioning or interest.  For a higher functioning group, he might lead Music "Pictionary" where a person selects a song title, draws a clue on a white board for the others to guess.  When the title is guessed, the group sings the song and sometimes even discusses what the song has meant to them.  Another higher functioning group might include songwriting to express feelings musically rather than verbally.  For the most challenged people Greg employs simpler techniques to encourage involvement.  This could include clapping, rhythm instruments like tambourines or shakers or drum sticks.  The songs may go back to early childhood since these memories last the longest.  The group really enjoyed opening day of baseball season with the familiar song “Take me out to the ballgame.”  By choosing appropriate music, it is possible to reduce agitation and confusion to create a sense of calm.

Lori Shmukler, President of Homelink, is moved by what she observes.  The Center chorus is enthusiastic; participants so enjoy dance and yoga, art therapy and the chaplain’s program reach people’s heart.  All combined they reveal more clearly the person from years ago.  Ms. Shmukler stated, “it is so inspiring to see people who were thought to be lost engage in an event; to watch them watch, to watch them laugh, to watch them enjoy life in that moment.  That is why we do this work.”

There are miracle moments:  a wheelchair bound participant with limited assistance stood up and danced with the music.  After singing “Ol’ Man River” with the music therapist, a person who had difficulty talking about her feelings began to verbally express herself.  She said that the river in the song (which is always moving forward around rocks and branches), was like life (always moving forward and around obstacles).   The connecting of people with life is the story and music is the great connector.

Homelink is a community resource for senior adults.  If you have questions, need information on sources of assistance for the memory impaired, guidance about VA benefits for adult day, just call (215) 235-2805.  There are ways to make life better for struggling senior adults and Homelink can help make a difference.