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September is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. This month, we endeavor to end the stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

We spoke to Dr. Mary Ann East, Director of Encore Creativity’s Arts for Life programs, about our music and memory programs – and how deeply intertwined music is to memory.

How did Encore Creativity’s Arts for Life programs begin?

I came to Encore in 2018 as a conductor for the Encore Chorale of Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads. At the end of that season, our founder, Jeanne Kelly, approached me and said, “It’s time to do the next thing.”

When singers did not reenroll, Jeanne would call them and ask why. Some were moving but others said they were having trouble keeping up in rehearsal or the music was getting too hard. Then, one of our singers wanted to participate in the annual Kennedy Center concert, but was afraid of it being too overwhelming. So, Jeanne talked to his wife and suggested she come with him, dress in concert black and sit with him for the concert. It worked wonderfully. So, we talked about developing a group for singers with cognitive change and their care partners. We contacted Insight Memory Care Center and partnered with them for the first group that launched in Fall 2019.

As Director of Arts for Life, you have conducted many Arts for Life ensembles over time. How have you seen music change their lives?

The two biggest things I have noticed are:

  • The engagement of the singers with their care partners and with each other when we sing. Their faces light up and they smile at each other and laugh at their mistakes or when we are having fun with shaker eggs.
  • The joy and respite it provides the care partners. This is something they can do WITH their loved one, not for their loved one.

What are your goals for the Arts for Life programming? Where do you hope the programs will be in five years?

Wow, I have so many hopes and dreams for this programming! One goal is to have a program in every community where we have a Chorale or ROCKS group. We see this as an opportunity to keep our singers engaged throughout their life journey. Singers can “graduate” to our Arts for Life programming when they find they need the extra support.

I also hope to develop other programming including other arts disciplines like visual art and story writing as well as singing for lung health, which focuses on breathing for those with pulmonary disease and respiratory health.

Offering support to hospice services is also something I would like to develop.

What can we as individuals do to help end the stigma that faces Alzheimer’s and other dementias this month?

When Jeanne Kelly asked me to help start this program, my first response was, “Why me?” I didn’t have any training in neurology, dementia care, or elder care. She simply said, “I have watched you work with our singers and I know you are the right person to do this.”

What I have realized is that you don’t need special training to smile and say “Hi” to someone. You can speak with those living with cognitive change just as you would anyone else. It takes patience to wait for answers and sometimes imagination to come into their world. But they have wonderful stories to tell about their lives and they want to engage! It just takes our willingness to initiate, and as I said, a smile and a “Hello” go a long way.