By Vicki Greenleaf
Carol Rosenstein’s husband, Irwin, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006 and related dementia three years later. With the progressive nature of the disease, Irwin’s medications eventually began to fail and his condition worsened. As the couple grew increasingly isolated and unhappy, Carol could feel Irwin slipping away. “Every day was like a roller coaster ride,” Carol says of the ups and downs with medications, which can accumulate and become toxic, which caused Irwin to experience hallucinations.
But when Carol enrolled Irwin in the University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patient Care program in June 2014, he began playing the piano for participating students and adults … and something miraculous happened. Within just weeks, it was clear that playing music empowered Irwin, who became more aware, responsive, confident, energetic, talkative and hopeful.
Inspired by the dramatic transformation in Irwin’s condition through playing music and the benefits of social interaction, Carol launched Music Mends Minds (MMM) and the organization’s inaugural band, The 5th Dementia, in August 2014. Soon, the caregivers and doctors of other band members began reporting substantial improvements as well.
Currently, medical research is exploring music as the “new frontier” for treating dementia and managing the symptoms of other neurological/psychological disorders and MMM is at the forefront of this organic movement, seeking to improve the lives of neurologically impaired patients — and the lives of their families and caregivers — through the healing power of music. MMM fosters the development of therapeutic bands comprised of cognitively impaired musicians, including those who just sing along or shake a tambourine. MMM’s mission includes an intergenerational component, which brings local student volunteers and musical students to play and rehearse with senior band members. This fosters a valuable relationship where the seniors can mentor the students, for mutual empowerment and engagement.
In addition to the benefits to the seniors, providing a joyful alternative to social isolation, MMM also creates a positive, cross-generational impact. By introducing young, music students to the program, MMM soon discovered that they also benefited tremendously from the wisdom, and spirit of their seasoned partners. This impact also allows the organization’s members to give back as well and inspires younger students to learn about the effects of neurological diseases and how to combat the effects of the diseases.
Notes Windward School student Jared Bishop who plays violin with the band, “I heard about The 5th Dementia Band rehearsing at Windward School and love to see the faces of joy as we play music together. These are the happiest moments of my week. Regardless of how old, music connects us magically.”
Adds Spencer Lemann, who plays bass with the band and composed, produced and performed the MMM theme song, “I have been playing with The 5th Dementia for more than two years and noticed right away that there was no difference in the quality of music between the 15-year-olds and the 85-year-olds. Now I’ve learned that music storage keeps music memory alive, even in the presence of neurodegenerative diseases. MMM has given me such joy and I want to contribute in any way I can.”
Bringing together musicians, students, family, caregivers and friends to make music during the rehearsals builds connections; promotes “aging in place” (in the home); and helps to reduce symptoms, disease-related stressors and associated costs of health care. And MMM bands’ live performances offer an opportunity to the entire community to come together to enjoy the music and destigmatize these isolating diagnoses.
In the U.S. alone, more than 5 million people live with Alzheimer’s disease and 4-6 million live with Parkinson’s disease (50-80% experiencing dementia). According to the Alzheimer’s Association, national costs attributed to Alzheimer’s and other dementia diagnoses will reach a $259 billion in 2017 and are expected to rise to more than $1 trillion by 2050. Millions more are living with some other forms of neurodegenerative decline, 8 million live with PTSD, and there are approximately 800,000 new stroke victims each year.
Scientific studies show that playing a musical instrument engages both sensory and motor skill areas, as well as auditory, visual and cognitive centers—engaging more areas of the brain than any other activity. Simultaneously, it releases such neurotransmitters as dopamine, which is involved in learning, movement control and mood. By engaging in music with a focus on skill improvement and coordination with other musicians, it is believed that the circuitry in the brain can be maintained—even rescued or rewired—through the formation of new connections.
Recalls Carol of their 11-year journey, “I feel so blessed to have my buddy back and a quality of life that was missing in our home for a very long time. Ours was a love story that I thought was over, but now continues … just to a little different beat. Music not only mends minds, but families and relationships. I like to say it restores the rhythm of life and I want to share that medicine with others.”
Today, new bands are being formed in communities across the nation and in other countries by people who have been inspired by MMM’s story; as community service projects with Rotary International clubs as part of their community outreach; and in conjunction with such other organizations as the Department of Veteran’s Affairs through its Home for Heroes program, which launched The Band of Heroes in Los Angeles.
Vicki D. Greenleaf formed her own company, Los Angeles-based Greenleaf & Associates, Inc., in 1992, specializing in entertainment and consumer goods marketing. In 2012, she partnered with long-time friend and business associate, Dorrit Ragosine, to form Social Change Public Relations and Marketing, which focuses on cause marketing and the philanthropic community.