Few things are more heartbreaking than when an elderly loved one begins to lose mental capacities such as memory and the ability to recognize family members.
But an organization called Mind&Melody has found a unique way to instill hope and improve symptoms for people suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases that affect the mind: Music therapy sessions.
“Music is the only activity that can activate all parts of the brain at once,” says Cristina Rodriguez, who along with Lauren Koff founded Mind&Melody in 2014. “It requires our motor skills, our hearing and our visual system, and it plays a really important role in memories, especially emotional memories.
“So with individuals that are experiencing something like Alzheimer’s, where their short-term memory is impaired, music tends to pull back that information that may have seemed like it was lost. And it can bring back memories from when somebody was in their 20s, or when they were growing up and their mom used to sing them ‘You Are My Sunshine.’”
The idea behind Mind&Melody began to develop when Rodriguez, a cello player since she was 10, noticed that many of the children in her music classes were very advanced, which piqued her curiosity. At age 14, she started volunteering at Miami Children’s Hospital, now Nicklaus Hospital, and found the atmosphere less than conducive to patients getting well.
“I would walk around the hallways, and it’s not like a happy place, and it’s very cold, with a lot of white walls,” she says. “And I wanted to bring in life and music into that space, so my idea at the time was to create a room full of instruments where the community could come in and give this experience to the children that were living there.”
These thoughts, plus a later interest in books by neurologist Oliver Sacks — who wrote about case studies of how music affects people with traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism — eventually led Rodriguez to take the plunge with Mind&Melody.
“This idea of creating a music program for individuals who were experiencing neurological impairments was always poking at me, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer,” she says.
Since 2014, Mind&Melody has quickly expanded, now boasting programs from Homestead to Martin County and also in Gainesville and Tallahassee. Its mission is simple, says Rodriguez: to transform the lives of individuals experiencing neurological impairments through music.
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Here’s how it works: The Mind&Melody team, consisting of two or three paid musicians and perhaps half a dozen volunteers who help in other ways, sets up a session in an assisted living facility, nursing home, hospital or even in an individual’s home. There, they engage and encourage elderly people to sing, dance, shake maracas, tap their feet and play instruments.
“Music is the universal language, so no matter whether you’re a baby, a teenager, or anywhere in life, we all respond to music, even if it’s in a different language,” says Rodriguez. “So it’s a means of communication in human evolution.”
That communication can be difficult to achieve with some of the elderly participants, but when there’s a breakthrough, it’s extremely powerful and moving.
“When we started, we met a gentleman named David, and he would sit in the corner at the sessions, and he wouldn’t really engage,” recalls Rodriguez. “Everybody else would be playing songs and singing, and he would just sit in the corner. He wouldn’t talk to us, nothing.
“And we found out he used to be a professional violinist, so we brought in a viola one day and we put it in his hands, and he started playing flawlessly. It was incredible. We had tried the guitar before, and he had tremors and he got very discouraged. But with this, he was able to play by ear and his technique was completely intact, and we saw him smile for the first time. And we would ask him, ‘David, how are you?’ And he would actually answer us, which was crazy because it had been months and we had never seen that type of response from him.”
It’s fair to ask whether these positive effects endure beyond the day of the sessions. The jury is still out in terms of finding clinical evidence to support lasting benefits, but those who interact with the participants see a noticeable difference.
“It’s interesting — we’re conducting a research study right now for Florida Atlantic University with Dr. James Galvin to look up the more long-term effects of our program on anxiety, agitation and caregiver burden,” says Rodriguez. “This is a very new field that we’re still learning how to quantify, but hopefully we’ll get more insight into the longer impact that our program has.
“But you do see immediate changes pre- and post-session,” she continues, “and week to week, the residents start recognizing you, and sometimes they’re not even able to recognize their own family. But they’ll know. It’s fascinating.”
How to help
To learn more about Mind&Melody, or find out how to donate, volunteer or apply for a job, go to www.mindandmelody.org or call 305-582-1006.