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‘Music breaks down barriers.’ Jam sessions inspire Alzheimer’s patients and care partners

Music is magic.

There’s nothing as powerful as a song to lift your spirits, revive happy memories, and ease the pain of life-altering diagnoses.

“Music takes you away,” said Jerri Ogden, whose husband was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Jerri and Kenneth Ogden, of Merriam, attended the Alzheimer’s Association Jam in January. She played a tambourine and Kenneth tapped the rhythm sticks in time to “If I Had a Hammer” and other lively tunes in an hour-long jam session.

In dealing with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis on a daily basis, “music helps you stop, relax and remember the good times,” said Juliette B. Bradley, Kansas communications director for the Alzheimer’s Association.

The group meets on the third Thursday of the month at the Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park.

For an hour, the library room rocks with an eclectic blend of gospel, bluegrass, country, and oldies as those with Alzheimer’s, their fellow caregivers, and musicians all share the joy of playing.

Musicians volunteer to lead the singing and play the instruments. Portable percussion instruments are provided for those who come for a musical break.

Maracas, bells, clubs, tambourines and other vibrating instruments are good for people with Alzheimer’s because “they’re fun, easy to play, and require no training,” said Anastasia Wheeler, music therapist at Soundscaping Source.

“Music breaks down barriers,” said Overland Park guitarist Pam Carleton.

Carleton said she is volunteering because her mother died of Alzheimer’s and she wants to help others living with the diagnosis.

Kevin and Mary Corbett, from Leawood, bring guitars, a banjo, harmonicas and a passion for music to the session.

Kevin Corbett and U.S. Representative Dennis Moore began jamming in 2013 after Moore was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Moore died in 2021, but is fondly remembered in the session with a cry, “This is for Dennis.”

Merriam’s Kenneth and Jerri Ogden enjoy an Alzheimer’s Association jam session.

The sessions are led by Rachelle Morgan, owner of Soundscaping Source, a company that contracts with senior organizations and facilities to provide music to older adults and caregivers.

Music therapy is also helping people diagnosed with Parkinson’s in weekly choral practices at the Lenexa Senior Center.

“Parkinson’s affects all muscles,” Wheeler said. “Singing addresses the throat and swallowing. The choir’s vocal goals are to strengthen their voices, improve enunciation, clarity, and increase breath support.

At the Parkinson’s Choir winter concert in December, for example, choir members sang “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” to improve enunciation because the song requires a lot of precision, Wheeler said.

The choir began singing in person in the fall of 2019 and later turned to Zoom due to coronavirus restrictions.

The winter concert at Lenexa’s Westchester Village was the first in-person concert.

Stuart Munro, of Lake Quivira, said singing in the choir gives him a “meaningful connection to people”. He joined the choir two years ago, a year after he was diagnosed.

Munro has a special appreciation for the value of music in improving an individual’s quality of life. He was chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and taught courses in medicine and music.

Both the choir and the jam session are open to participants who want to Zoom.

The choir and jam session create a “community of peers,” said Soundscaping’s Rachelle Morgan.

“They don’t have to explain when they come here, they can just be people making music.”

For more information, visit soundscapingsource.com. Call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.

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