It was with a heavy heart that Nancy Gustafson watched her mother, Susan, who was living in a memory care center with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, grow increasingly introverted, spending most of her time alone in her room unable to recognize her daughters or speak more than one or two words at a time. But one sing-along, accompanied by some somewhat shaky piano playing, changed everything.
“I brought in a hymnal and tried singing with her, and within one second, she started singing along,” Gustafson says. “After 15 minutes, her first words were, ‘You know, that’s not very good.’ That was my mother!”
A retired professional opera singer, Gustafson’s piano playing earned more solid approval after another 20 minutes, and her mom even cracked a joke. “I can’t begin to tell you what that does to an adult child,” she says. “After lunch, she would stay connected; she had vocabulary. And I thought that we had to see if this worked with other people.”
It did, and Songs by Heart was born, bringing interactive singing to memory care centers and facilities across the US. This fall, Opera Saratoga is launching its partnership with the program, making it the first opera company in the US with a full-time commitment to this type of music therapy.
“We hope to serve as a model that other companies can replicate,” says Opera Saratoga’s Artistic and General Director Lawrence Edelson, whose own father is currently living with the disease. “It’s an important re-prioritization of company resources for us—to have artists who have therapeutic training in residence with us, full-time, dedicated to this program.”
Opera Saratoga plans to start with up to a dozen facilities in seven counties, from south of Albany up to Lake George, visiting each center one to three times a week for an engagement-centered program in which a trained singer leads interactive sing-alongs with residents. The singers use therapeutic techniques such as mirroring, verbal and gestural prompting, making direct eye contact, and holding hands with residents throughout the program. Singers encourage residents to join in in the singing, clapping and dancing, as well as to engage in conversation centered around the musical selections.
Each of Opera Saratoga’s artists will by trained by Songs by Heart’s artistic administrator, Emily Becker, and Music Therapist, Jenny Cook. Becker and Cook have trained dozens of musicians (Songs by Heart boasts about 150 pianists and singers in its program across the country) and have even been known to jump on a plane to fill in if one of their singers comes down with a cold. Becker says show tunes, such as songs from My Fair Lady, are common requests—and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is the No. 1 most popular song.
With almost six million Americans currently suffering from Alzheimer’s, and studies showing that music-based interventions can have profound effects on the cognitive and social functions of dementia patients, Gustafson has high hopes that partnerships like the one with Opera Saratoga will help ignite more widespread usage of their sing-along therapy.
“When we were singing in a group, and my mom touched the man next to her, I thought I was going to burst into tears,” she says. “Having Alzheimer’s is lonely; you wake up not knowing who you are. But when people with Alzheimer’s are singing, they’re no longer in their room alone. They’re connecting with the world around them. It’s powerful not only for the person with Alzheimer’s, but for every member of his or her family.”
DID YOU KNOW?
An estimated 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease today. One recent study, using data from the Centers for Disease Control, Medicaid and Medicare, shows that New York State has the 10th highest rate of Alzheimer’s disease in the country. There is currently no cure for this devastating illness, and approximately 85,000 people die from the condition each year.
DO YOU HAVE A LOVED ONE LIVING WITH ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE OR DEMENTIA?
Opera Saratoga’s new music therapy program for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia will be made available to memory care facilities across the region beginning this fall. In August, the company will provide free previews of the program to any interested memory care center. If you have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s or dementia and would like Opera Saratoga to explore serving the facility in which they live, please contact Amanda Robie at 518.584.6018, or [email protected].
HOW CAN I HELP?
Seed money for this new initiative has been generously provided by OPERA America’s Innovation Grant Program, which is supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation; OPERA America’s Civic Practice Grant Program; and the National Endowment for the Arts. However, this monetary support does not fully subsidize the cost of operating the program, and each of these grants has a matching component required. Please contact Katrina Fasulo at 518.584.6018 or [email protected] to make a tax-deductible contribution to support this vital initiative.