Tomoko has memory challenges. For the past year, she has lived at Summer House at Villa Gardens, the memory care community in Pasadena. Although Tomoko sometimes struggles to recognize family members and recent events, she can recall all the words to Amazing Grace, America the Beautiful and other favorite songs. And for her longtime friend, Esther, singing together offers a powerful point of connection for the two of them to share.
“It was important for me to join her in the chorus as her buddy,” Esther said. “I can see a difference in her mood when she comes here to sing.”
Twice a week, Tomoko, Esther and about 20 residents living at Summer House at Villa Gardens and Villa Gardens Health Center, many with memory challenges, rehearse side by side with their “buddies” in the Joyful Hearts chorus.
“Now is the time for the magic to begin,” exclaims Sheen Sanchez, a professional choir director with experience working with people diagnosed with memory impairment. As Sheen raises his arms and his accompanist begins tapping the piano keys, suddenly residents who entered the room having difficulty holding a thought or stringing even a few words together, sing tunes ranging from patriotic favorites, holiday classics and American standards.
"We know that music is stored in a part of the brain that's last affected by memory illnesses," says Lucy Jones, Summer House manager at Villa Gardens. “It’s our way of increasing fun and engagement through music and the social experience.”
Volunteer ‘buddies’ play a key role in socialization and singing support for the residents. ‘Buddies’ include fellow residents, community volunteers and/or family members who also participate.
“Music makes the heart come alive,” Sheen said. “Residents are responding with enthusiasm. We choose well-known songs from an era the majority remember. That makes it easy for singers to participate.”
Many studies show involvement in participatory arts programs have a positive effect on mental health, physical health, and social functioning in older adults, regardless of their ability. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining cognitive abilities that are found with musical memory shown to survive relatively well. As such, music is increasingly being lauded as one of the best ways to move beyond the disease and reach the person at all stages of dementia – providing an important channel of communication when others are challenged.
“Our goal is not perfection,” said Bonnie Stover, director of volunteer services for Front Porch, who helped organize the Joyful Hearts. “We emphasize the joy found in the process of weekly participation in the rehearsals and the socialization that goes along with it. We have provided professional training and support for our volunteer buddies as well as staff assistance at all rehearsals.”
“It’s been a positive experience,” said volunteer buddy Mark Jolley. “I’m happy to be here to support (Summer House resident) Roy.”
Rehearsals will continue through the summer and fall. Sheen plans to merge the Joyful Hearts with a youth choir, Los Angeles Young Ambassadors, which he instructs, culminating in intergenerational community performances in August and in December.
Joyful Hearts is a collaboration among Summer House at Villa Gardens, Villa Gardens Health Center, FACT Foundation, California Lutheran Homes and Community Services and Front Porch Volunteer Services.
© Front Porch Communities and Services 2017