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Making Memories With Music boosts life for those with dementia

Anita Thomas, left, and her husband, Bill, dance

Anita Thomas, left, and her husband, Bill, dance at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington in April 29 at a program called Making Memories With Music, which uses music to engage those with memory loss. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

Music from the Rat Pack era gets the room up and moving during a Making Memories With Music program at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.

Couples twirl around the floor and others dance singly in a circle, often singing and clapping to the music. Just about everyone in the room is smiling and up and moving, or at least tapping in time if they're seated.

Welcome to a program that uses the power of music to touch those with memory issues, giving them and their care partners a chance to enjoy a social activity.

"It's wonderful to know you're not alone," said Marcy Rhodes, 65, of Huntington, a licensed master social worker and certified special-education teacher who facilitates the program. It's one of the Making Memories Through the Arts programs she coordinates that offer enrichment, stimulation and socialization for people with memory loss and those who care for them. "It's important for them to have joy in their lives, to stay engaged and to be connected with others because memory loss is such an isolating condition," Rhodes added.

Other types of memory programs also are offered at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, the Whaling Museum in Cold Spring Harbor and at The Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. After watching film clips in Making Memories at the Movies, participants share memories as they discuss movies in a guided conversation, or in Exploring Art … Making Memories, they discuss artworks in programs at area museums.

The programs are part of an effort to engage people living with dementia and their care partners with cultural arts in the community. Shared social activities offer participants a chance to form connections in a safe space, relax and escape the daily caregiving routine for a bit. Familiar music spurs memories, conversation and togetherness, creating comfortable moments. Music, film and visual arts spark memories and encourage engagement, Rhodes notes on her website.

Light refreshments and information for care partners about various memory services and programs across Nassau and Suffolk counties also are available. Some who attend bring bag lunches so they can continue the socialization before heading home.

Fanya Ryvlina, 87, who attended a program at Cinema Arts with a social day care group from the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack, was dancing up a storm, moving and clapping along with several songs. "I like to dance all my life," she said. "I don't feel my age."

A group from Gurwin attends the memory programs at Cinema Arts regularly for socialization, said chief adult day officer Jeraldine Fedoriw, and takes such day trips as shopping and visiting a park. Gurwin is among the sponsors of events at Cinema Arts.

At Cinema Arts and the Gold Coast Arts Center in Great Neck, where the music program also is offered, professional dancers kick things off, demonstrating different steps and dances to recorded music and generally getting people moving. As dancers spread out, the pros circulate, showing moves and dancing with different partners.

During a Making Memories With Music program at the Gold Coast Arts Center, Rose Andersen of Port Washington, who is "99 and a half," as her son Glen Andersen noted, smiles from her wheelchair as she moves in time with the music. Her favorite songs include Strauss waltzes and Big Band-era tunes, he said. "Put on a mamba or rumba and her whole body starts to vibrate," he said. She's hesitant to stand, but often "chair dances" along with the music.

"Music is her air," said Glen Andersen, 66. He remembers the stereo was constantly on, playing songs by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, while he and his siblings were growing up. "We grew up with music," he said. "That's her medicine."

The music and memory programs are a draw for them because it's a chance to socialize in a group setting. "I think it should catch on more," he said. "We like that Cinema Arts place, where people gather together, and seeing other people. We enjoy going out."

The family is planning a 100th birthday party for Rose at The Milleridge Inn in Jericho in mid-November, Glen said.

Visiting a music and memory program at the Gold Coast Arts Center for the first time, Kris Sweeney, 59, of Floral Park, brought her mother, 90-year-old Barbara Sanfino, who moved back to the area from Idaho several years ago. Music from the Big Band Era is a favorite, especially compositions played by Sanfino's late husband, jazz musician Jerry Sanfino.

"I was married to a musician — he played saxophone and all of the woodwinds," Barbara explained, and was one of the musicians on the original "Mack The Knife." Her favorite music? "His."

Sanfino also attends a senior memory program in Herricks one day a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. where there's a music component and sometimes children from a nursery program in the building come in to sing songs.

"She enjoys it, listening to the music," Sweeney said. "You have to find what is appropriate to your situation. This works for mom. She was never much for watching TV. She was a woman who liked to move. She liked to do things."

Jeff Nathanson, 27, of Dix Hills, brings his mother, Arlene, 61, to the music programs at Cinema Arts.

"Music is huge to her now," he said, and art and music therapy form a big part of her treatment. "She paints and enjoys playing the piano. It's like that one side [of her brain] is pretty much there," he said. "Her speech therapist sings with her because the music, we think, gets through to her. And when we come out of the music and memory program, she's in a much better mood."

Lauren Morett-Vij, 63, of Huntington concurred about the positive effects of the music programs, which her mother, Beverly Morett of Greenlawn, attended in April at Cinema Arts. "She responded very well to the music," Morett-Vij said about her mom, who died in July at the age of 85.

"It is an amazing program. You would see how they all light up and wake up," Morett-Vij said this month.

Making Memories programs

Registration is requested because seating is limited. Contact the Cinema Arts Centre or Gold Coast Arts Center, or email Marcy Rhodes at makingmemoriesprograms@gmail.com. The schedule for the various programs, including film and art, is updated regularly as new dates are added; visit makingmemoriesthroughthearts.com.

Upcoming dates for Making Memories With Music include:

  • 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday, Aug. 26, at the Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, with Gail Storm, jazz and swing with the singer-songwriter-pianist.
  • 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 10, at the Gold Coast Arts Center, 113 Middle Neck Road, Great Neck. celebrate the holidays with Steve Cassano.
  • 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 23, Cinema Arts Centre, Celebrate the holidays with Steve Cassano.

— Kay Blough

LIAF's Sharp Notes

Joe Razzano Jr.'s head nods in time and his hand moves along as he sings in Italian the lyrics to the humorous "Che la Luna," a catchy tune often sung at Italian weddings.

He's through the first verse and well into the second when he stops and smiles. Razzano, 86, of East Meadow, sang it in response to a question about a favorite song after a music and memory program at the Long Island Alzheimer's Foundation in Westbury.

"I enjoy it," Razzano said. "I like to sing along with everything."

He's one of about a dozen participants and care partners attending a Saturday morning chorus program at the LIAF center on Old Country Road for those in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. The Sharp Notes program began last fall.

The program taps into the deep connection between music and memory and music's ability to reduce anxiety and exercise the brain. Research has shown music is linked to personal memories, often from the listener's teen years and into their 20s, said Dana Castoria, the foundation’s engagement and marketing manager. Songs can help calm someone who's agitated and help them focus, and trigger their memory of the lyrics. "Everyone has their own comfort music," she said.

For the past year, Razzano has been coming to programs at the LIAF three times a week. "We're trying to keep him involved in different things, and a cousin takes him to chair yoga, too," said his son, Joseph Razzano III, 62, of Ronkonkoma. His parents loved to dance, and his father has always enjoyed music. "They were phenomenal dancers and loved being the center of attention," he said. His mother, Rose, died in 2012, Joseph said.

In his father's mind, he's often living a different life, his son said, and the music helps him remember those times. The elder Razzano’s career included an early stint as a baker before he was a groundskeeper at Eisenhower Park for 30 years and later helped maintain equipment for the Special Olympics at Belmont Park. "He'll remember things from back in the '50s and tell stories from when he was a baker," his son said.

Chorus director Branden Andrade, 27, of Medford, who is a band director at East Woods School in Oyster Bay, and accompanist Pat Kaiser, 58, of Floral Park, who is a music therapist and a licensed creative arts therapist, join forces on Saturday mornings to run the two-hour chorus program called Sharp Notes for those with early-stage memory issues and their care partners.

They work hard to keep the energy level high. Andrade said he finds that visual reinforcement helps, so he distributes sheets with the lyrics of songs they're singing. He and Kaiser set a warm environment by playing music as participants come into the room.

"If I'm giving everything, they're feeling it," Andrade said. "Foot tapping is a sign they're enjoying it."

The program gives care partners a chance to engage in a regular activity with the participants. "We make the setting easy for them, and give them a space to enjoy music together," Kaiser said. "It helps the caregiver — they can get a lot out of this and feel connected."

They've tried music the participants know, such as Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon," The Beatles' "Blackbird" and Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," and some they didn't know as well, such as Elton John's "I'm Still Standing," so they can see what works best.

"There's pathways that get fired. We're seeing that," Kaiser said. "They're holding onto information."

Razzano also has benefited from LIAF's Music & Memory program, in which participants receive an iPod loaded with a playlist of their favorite songs compiled by LIAF staff after they talk with the participant, their family and care partners. "Hazel [his care partner] gives it to him from time to time and it helps keep him calm," his son said.

The Music & Memory program started in 2016 with three participants and their iPods. "Right now, we’re averaging about 12 participants," said social worker Grace Johnson, 28, director of late-stage programming and director of transportation at LIAF.

The best part about the program is being able to communicate via music, Johnson said.

"We have one woman who has hallucinations due to this disease. She grew up in a Polish family and felt a strong connection to the Polish culture. By connecting her with some Polish folk songs, we were able to watch her smile and sway to the music of her childhood. We also noticed that the hallucinations decreased when she was listening to the music."

For more information on LIAF's Music & Memory and Sharp Notes programs, visit liaf.org/music-and-dementia.

The chorus practices Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to noon at the LIAF offices, 1025 Old Country Rd., Suite 115, Westbury. Cost is $5 per session. Call to register.

— Kay Blough

Looking for support?

For those with questions about memory loss that disrupts daily life or who are searching for resources, the Alzheimer’s Association Long Island Chapter offers a 24-hour helpline at 800-272-3900; or visit its website at alz.org/longisland. The association also offers information about area support groups and memory cafes, where diagnosed individuals and their care partners gather for socialization, music and support.

— Kay Blough

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