Health & Fitness

Music strikes a chord with Alzheimer’s patients

Participants in the Mind&Melody program play the keyboards and learn about basic music theory at My New Oasis Assisted Living Facility in Miami. The nonprofit Mind&Melody uses music to help people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Participants in the Mind&Melody program play the keyboards and learn about basic music theory at My New Oasis Assisted Living Facility in Miami. The nonprofit Mind&Melody uses music to help people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Imagine the euphoria of playing a familiar melody on a piano when remembering your family members’ names is a daily challenge.

Cristina Rodriguez, 23, is the founder of a program devoted to granting that feeling to Alzheimer’s patients.

“If we can just make people’s lives easier, or bring some joy through that entire process, it’s worth it,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez co-founded Mind&Melody in 2014 with then-classmate Lauren Koff at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter. The nonprofit organization uses music to improve the lives of people with neurological impairments like Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Now, with more than 150 volunteers, Mind&Melody is conducting its music education program at six wellness centers throughout Florida. Two of those are in Miami-Dade — Easter Seals South Florida and My New Oasis — and five have begun paying for the service.

The program is meant to enrich the lives of those being treated for dementia, Alzheimer’s and other similar neurological conditions. Mind&Melody volunteers teach those with an interest in music to play instruments, then play along with them.

One volunteer, FAU fine-arts graduate and neuroscience student Lee Sutherland, is also working on what he called a “top-secret” project that will benefit the program.

“We’re going to create in-house instruments designed for people who can’t play music so we can create situations that are wholly positive,” he said.

At its launch location, FAU’s Memory and Wellness Center, activity coordinator Taylor Blake said creative memory is lost late in cognitive decline, so music is accessible to people with dementia for a longer period of time.

“Music education and learning how to create music was kind of right up our alley for our participants,” she said.

Rodriguez has played cello since she was 10 and studied music theory throughout her schooling. As a result, she is able to break complex songs into simpler parts to make playing them easier, which is the basis of the program.

First, Rodriguez separates the notes played in a chord over separate keyboards by assigning them a color. Volunteers assign that color to a specific key. When participants play the same-colored key, though they are playing different notes, they synthesize a chord.

Rodriguez recalled a man with Alzheimer’s participating in one of the sessions at the Memory and Wellness Center.

“This guy gained the courage to come in front of the class — in front of all his peers — and play a song he used to play when he was younger,” she said.

According to Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs, there are more than 500,000 people with Alzheimer’s in Florida. That number is expected to grow by 80,000 in the next four years.

Since there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, Rodriguez plans to double the number of programs by December 2016.

“If you feel strongly about something, whether it’s about helping people or a passion or a dream, you should pursue it regardless of what financial situation you’re in, your age or any other parameters,” she said.

Mind&Melody is still looking for backers, but Sutherland said he is using his project and knowledge from a social entrepreneurship course to help create a sustainable business model that doesn’t rely upon donations.

To Blake, the future of Mind&Melody seems bright.

“I think they have created a niche for themselves, in terms of providing a program that many assisted-living day centers can hopefully take advantage of,” she said.

How to help

Contact Mind&Melody at 305-582-1006, emailing info@mindandmelody.org or go to mindandmelody.org

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