Music Mends Minds: A CNN Hero’s mission finds a new need during the pandemic

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Studies show that for seniors, social isolation increases the risk of developing dementia by nearly 50%. For those already experiencing cognitive decline, it’s taking an even greater toll.

“Diagnoses of some form of neurodegenerative decline brings such isolation to the patient and the families,” said 2018 CNN Hero Carol Rosenstein. “Covid just makes this doubly difficult for our seniors to sustain their levels of wellness … We are going to see people deteriorating faster.”

Rosenstein’s husband, Irwin, has been battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia for more than a decade. In 2014, after witnessing how playing music helped him, Rosenstein started a band for Irwin and others with neurodegenerative diseases. They called themselves the 5th Dementia.

Since 2014, her nonprofit, Music Mends Minds, has created 20 bands that have improved the quality of life for more than 200 people.

And during the pandemic, Rosenstein believes their music is as important as ever.

Mounting scientific evidence shows that listening and playing music is beneficial for people with neurodegenerative diseases.

“Music is a language of the brain. It is a complex, auditory language and it stimulates the brain in many different ways. It stimulates feelings, thinking processes, the motor system,” said Dr. Michael Thaut, director of the Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Thaut says musical engagement can reduce moments of confusion, disorientation or agitation. He equates memory to a network that can be unlocked by music.

“When a musical memory is triggered in people with memory disorders, they don’t just remember the song, they also usually remember some other autobiographical memories that are connected,” Thaut said. “They remember at least for a moment where they are and who they are. And that can lead to very good, important moments, sometimes very emotional scenes where there is a reconnect for a moment, a recognition.”

When Covid-19 hit, Rosenstein moved her organization’s programming online. Participants now meet virtually several times a week to play music together. Rosenstein says their work has been crucial.

“What the world needs now is music. Music is medicine for the mind,” she said. “We can bring such happiness and hope in this moment of relative despair.”

CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Rosenstein about her current efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: How has increased isolation during Covid-19 specifically impacted seniors, especially those with dementia?

Carol Rosenstein: We are guided by love and touch, and because of our quarantine situation, many of those living alone now are missing the human touch, the smile. Isolation is bringing a great additional stress to all of us.

I know living with my darling husband Irwin, who is end stage dementia now and Parkinson’s diagnosis of 14 years, routine is the operative word for him. So, we have a routine of what guides us through his day to keep him as content as possible. We are all creatures of routine, and the idea of routine for these people is so important.

This isolation is bringing with it a huge toll, but we can provide a great substitute that is going to hold us and keep us healthy and well during the next many months that we’re still going to be in quarantine. Our work is so vitally important because we are able to bring music as medicine for the mind to everybody. And we are continuing to see improvement of everybody.

CNN: How is your organization’s online programming providing connection for participants?

Rosenstein: We had to abandon in-person get-togethers and I was thinking, “How the heck are we going to survive on our important mission?” We meet (online) Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 1 to 2 pm. Our virtual sessions have about 30 to 35 people.

They can show up and we’ll be there to greet them, to love them, and to have so much fun that they’re going to have some moment of normalcy, which is going to tide them over to the next opportunity that we can all be together. It doesn’t matter where on the continuum you are. But if you’re able to connect to a platform on your computer or phone, on your tablet, you will be able to come alive with all of us and not feel isolated. I never anticipated that so many would find the courage and confidence to signal that they want to sing us a song.

The ability to connect (online) as an extended family, and to see the smiles and waves, it’s just joyful and healing. This is total therapy. We have many generations of families. And it’s so touching to see moms and daughters and grandchildren singing together, waving, blowing kisses. It’s what we are missing at this crazy and turbulent time. I’ve watched our people continue to sparkle. They’re finding their confidence, their self-worth. And it’s really shocked me that we still continue to see people improve using the power of music during our current circumstances.

CNN: Why is it so important for people to engage with seniors during this time, and what are some safe ways to do that?

Rosenstein: It’s critical for everyone to feel the love that we are missing in person. Bring some attention to them. Because that’s what they’re hanging on to while they’re on the continuum of decline. It’s just critical. Otherwise, we’re going to be running into a much bigger emotional, mental issue in our country and in the world.

To do this safely is imperative. Do drive-bys and kisses through windows. Reach out in safety to those around you who may just need to know that you are thinking of them. Keep your hearts open. Have compassion. If you’re living distances apart, use the internet to reach out and speak to loved ones so they are reassured that they are not alone. Or come and see what Music Mends Minds is doing.

This is a very, very difficult time and we’ve all got to be in this together. We’ve all got to stay connected in some way. And we’ve got to spread love to everybody.

Want to get involved? Check out the Music Mends Minds website and see how to help.

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