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Songs By Heart: An Interactive Program For People With Memory Loss

Experts in the field of memory care use several techniques intended to increase the quality of life for people diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Music is one modality that may stimulate positive interactions and help reduce stress.

Every Thursday afternoon residents at the memory care unit of a retirement community in Cincinnati gather to sing.

The atmosphere is vivacious. Twenty people are sitting in a circle and almost everyone is singing to every song led by professional piano player, Lynne Miller, and  professional level vocalist, Clare Hingsbergen, who, full disclosure, is my daughter.  

“Let Me Call You Sweet Heart,” “Moon River,” and “Zippity Doo Dah,“ along with “Hello Dolly” are a few of the  tunes selected for this “Songs by Heart” program.

94 year old Frieda Garber’s short term memory is gone. Her daughter Ellen Garber says her mom can recall zip codes and addresses.

Ellen says, “It’s interesting what the brain remembers and what it doesn’t hold. How I see the program work, if mom hasn’t had a great cognitive day, when she comes to Songs by Heart and Clare looks into her eyes and holds her hands and touches mom, she sings right back.”

The Chicago- based Songs by Heart Foundation is a non-profit started in 2015. The program is designed to help connect people who have memory loss to the joy of language and singing.  

Program vocalist  Hingsbergen says her background as a performer and communication instructor at the University of Cincinnati is helpful. She’s also had specific training to work with people living with dementia.     

Hingsbergen says, “We have goals for each resident. So it’s not just standing up there and singing. It’s the interaction. So the training was extensive enough to make sure that I’m doing it appropriately.”

Hingsbergen recalls a story about a man who travels from Florida every six weeks to visit his mom. He was deeply touched by how his mom was affected by the program.

Hingsbergen says, “He said after the Songs by Heart session the next day, mom got up  and she said I love you a bushel and a peck. He said I just started crying because  that was  the first time in a long time something had carried over from day to day.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first and only place in Ohio, Kentucky or West Virginia carrying Songs By Heart, is the Kenwood by Senior Star in Cincinnati.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Artistic Administrator, Emily Becker says there’s been some  research, the results mostly anecdotal, showing the benefits of the program. She says a new study with Northwestern University is being formed that’s expected to report  quantitative data about the program.

Becker says,  “There’s something about the interaction, which is what we do that’s different from other music programs, from other sing-a-longs. We touch the residents, we hold their hands. We encourage them to participate actively. “

People with Alzheimer’s Disease often can recognize familiar tunes even though other cognitive functions are impaired according to Dr. Olivia Yinger, Associate Professor  of music therapy  at the University of Kentucky. She says using neuroimaging techniques scientists are starting to understand why this is the case.

Dr. Yinger says, “Basically Alzheimer’s Disease causes parts of the brain to atrophy or shrink and lose cells. The areas of the brain that are involved with long term musical memory are relatively well preserved even though other areas of the brain atrophy.”

91 year old Ed Ebrite started playing the trumpet at age 9 and has always been musical says his wife Barbara. Since being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 5 years ago, Ed mostly sleeps, speaks less and understands less but he does know her. Barbara says the program really makes a difference in Ed’s life and in hers.

Barbara says,  “It’s a happy day. It really is. I’m going to cry. And he’s so happy and he loves music. And I’m always amazed at the ones that he knows the words to.”

Songs by Heart is now in nearly 50 locations around the country including Chicago, Arizona, Florida , and Washington D.C. Ten more cities are on a waiting list.

Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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