Music and memory are featured in the 2012 documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory,” which won the 2014 Sundance Audience Award and was based on the work of Dan Cohen, who founded the nonprofit Music & Memory.
According to Music & Memory, “Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others. Persons with dementia, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that damage brain chemistry also reconnect to the world and gain improved quality of life from listening to personal music favorites.” The Alzheimer’s Association says, “Because music is stored in many areas of the brain and is a basic part of what makes us human, using music associated with personal memories helps reach and engage the person with dementia even as memory fails.” As a certified Sound Practitioner, I was curious about our own Memory and Music Café here on the Island.
I arrived for the talk at the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living (MVCL) given by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which visits the café monthly.
MVCL had moved into its new building only three weeks earlier, and they were still settling in. I was greeted and given a tour by the Music and Memory Café founder Dr. Nancy Langman, who is also responsible for Dementia Family Services. She explained that MVCL worked with “an architect who builds dementia-friendly facilities.” Dr. Langman brought the idea of a Music and Memory Café to MVCL, after seasonal resident Mary Wagner approached her. Ms. Wagner, a retired attorney, gets a lot of credit for working on the funding for the original program, which she had seen work successfully in her off-season residence in Maryland. Wagner also runs the Memory Support Group with Victoria Hasselbarth at Featherstone. When Wagner first approached her, Dr. Langman was working at Windemere and with the Memory Support Group at Featherstone.
Today, the Memory and Music Café is in its fourth year, and has already been in five locations prior to its new permanent home at the MVCL. Dr. Langman is proud of the fact that the Martha’s Vineyard Music and Memory program is the most highly attended in the state, with a minimum of 20 to 40-plus people each week. In fact, the day of my visit Dr. Langman told me, “There are five new people who’ve never been here before.” What makes this program stand out from others is that the music is live. Dr. Langman’s husband, Gary Cogley, is the café music director, and oversees a band of volunteer musicians. He wears an old leather hat with a feather, and has been a folk musician since the 1960s, when he played in a band called the Freewheelers.
At the end of my tour I met MVCL director Leslie Clapp, who said, “A typical Memory Café begins with free coffee and chatting before everyone settles in for the music. Sometimes rather than a talk, visiting kindergartners or first graders will sing for the assembled guests.” The program created a song book a couple of years ago which is in alphabetical order, offering words to 50-plus popular tunes that everyone can sing along to. One of the musicians, retired neurosurgeon Dr. Charlie Hodge, gives talks about the brain, from memory issues and strokes to how the brain processes emotion and sex (a popular subject).
The program is inclusive, so people who don’t necessarily have memory problems but need socialization have always been welcome. The MVCL received a grant from the Department of Developmental Services to expand the program to be able to invite “folks with developmental issues who may be at risk of developing memory problems in the future.” Presently, those involved with the group range in age from their 20s to their 90s.
Allison Roberts, administrative assistant to Ms. Clapp, expressed the desire “to see a high school student come in and share their music or other community members come in to lead a song.” Roberts considers the café “a great stepping stone for those who are in need of other services,” giving them a safe environment to explore what else may be available to them, like the dementia support groups and other services offered.
The band playing when I visited included Dr. Hodge on banjo, retired radiologist Dr. Jonathan Reynolds on guitar, retired healthcare administrator Ned Robinson Lynch on guitar, retired practical nurse Gail Stevenson, who was tap-dancing (though she sings and plays ukulele as well), and a member of the Wednesday ukulele group — there can be as many as eight musicians total.
Caregivers also join in, even leading songs. Volunteer Bill Glazier (who also volunteers at Meals on Wheels, as an AARP tax advisor, a SHINE counselor and Medicare advisor at the Anchors) helps out any way he can. He always had a smile on his face, and was at the ready whatever the need was. After a couple of songs, many people were shaking maracas as they sang along from their seats.
The room has a great sound system, and everyone was singing, rocking on their seats, smiling, and enjoying being a part of the action. As I readied to leave, Roberts had joined the band as lead singer, and her voice stilled me. I look forward to an album from the many talents who make this such a vibrant program.
Learn more about our own Music and Memory Café by visiting in person any Thursday from 10 am to noon at 29 Breakdown Lane in Vineyard Haven. Learn more about Music & Memory at musicandmemory.org, and more about the Alzheimer Association’ Music & Memory program at bit.ly/mandmalzheimer. See the film “Alive Inside” at aliveinside.us.