SARATOGA SPRINGS – Opera Saratoga has always been a company whose mission is to connect to the community. That directive became even more relevant in November when it launched its Songs by Heart program, which is dedicated to improving the quality of life for dementia sufferers through the power of music.
“Initially, the idea came from Larry Edelson whose father had Alzheimer’s,” said Melissa Howe, who currently oversees the program. “But others in the company also had relatives with it.”
Edelson was the former artistic/general director of Opera Saratoga who recently took a position at the University of Houston.
Songs by Heart is an organization that began in 2015 in Chicago after founder Nancy Gustafson discovered that her mother, who was suffering from dementia, responded by singing songs that Gustafson played on the piano.
While organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association have known for decades that music can shift mood, manage stress, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements, having a professional singer and a pianist go into a memory facility to work with its clients on a frequent basis had not been done before.
Today, Songs by Heart is in at least six states and 40 communities. But in 2019, there were no opera companies involved. However, Opera Saratoga obtained seed money to get the program going and auditions were held for singers and pianists. From 15 who responded, two duos of singer/pianist were chosen. While the singers were all professional — none were required to be a music therapist, many of them, including the pianists, were teachers or performers in the community.
The pandemic put everything on hold until several months ago. By then, the two duos had met with teams from Chicago who put them through a three-day training session on how to work with clients in a 45-minute session.
Among the things they learned were how to encourage singing, to use direct eye contact, hold their hands, use verbal and gestural prompting, clap hands, dance, and talk about the music selections. Song were chosen to what the clients might have sung early in their lives such as “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “A Bushel and a Peck,” songs connected to Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, or Gene Autry or holiday pertinent songs.
Initially, the teams went to local memory centers to give a free demo and two signed up immediately. Currently there are seven community centers that greet the duos in weekly to monthly sessions. Groups are generally 10 to 30 patients per session. Among the centers are: Home of the Good Shepherd (Saratoga Springs), Glendale Home (Scotia), Eddy Village Green Beverwyck (Slingerlands) and Peregrine Senior Living-Shaker (Albany).
Tiffany Dzembo from Troy is one of the singers who has been working with the program since November.
“I was a music teacher in public school but became a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “I’m also the choir director at St. John’s Episcopal in Troy and I sang there.
“I was looking for something that fit my skills and I was interested in music therapy — I’d had classes in it during college.”
After she received her training, which she said gave her added confidence knowing there was support for this new venture, and she’d worked out a set list with her pianist John Benware, she was ready.
“It was nerve wracking to go into these places. You don’t know what to expect,” Dzembo said. “But it’s very fulfilling to do. Every time there’s one or two that start the session unengaged and by the end of the singing or movement … to see that something you do makes a difference in someone’s life. I’m happy for the opportunity to be part of this program.”
Howe said there’s been great feedback to the program and there’s no question of the need. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease affects one in nine people age 65 and older and currently there are an estimated 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older who are living with it as of 2022. In New York alone, an estimated 460,000 will get the disease by 2025.
Among the signs are memory loss that disrupt daily life vs. forgetting an appointment but remembering it later in typically age-related changes; confusion with time or place vs. getting confused but remembering it later; or difficulty completing familiar tasks vs. occasionally needing help to use a microwave or record a television show.
But music can help connect people more to themselves.
“It’s helping with finding and getting people back into the community,” Howe said.
The Opera Saratoga Songs by Heart program is offered only to memory care centers in group sessions, not to individuals. Currently, they send teams up to a 45-mile radius for sessions, which are $125/session, but can set up free demos in the Capital Region. The hope that as this program grows, more teams will be hired and trained and be able to do a maximum of two sessions/day or up to 10 sessions/week, Howe said.
When the program began last year, Opera Saratoga was the only opera company in the country involved. Today, Toledo Opera has joined that short list.
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Categories: Art, Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Saratoga Springs