Music Mends Minds

St. George’s Edmonton Making Music with the Cognitively Impaired

St. George’s Anglican Church, Edmonton, was one of three Community Ministries awarded a grant from the Anglican Foundation of Canada’s Q1 grants cycle: $5,000 for Music Mends Minds. This ministry profile was written by Margaret Glidden, Director of Communications for the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton and has been reprinted with permission.

“Who remembers Elvis?” a guitarist strumming the chords of “Love Me Tender,” asks a small group of older adults sitting in the front pews of St. George’s Anglican Church in Edmonton.

“Oh, yes! Ed Sullivan instructed his cameraman to only film him from the waist up,” a member of the group is quick to reply.

“The first date I went on was to see Blue Hawaii in a theatre in South Africa,” says another.

It is a Tuesday morning in March, the first day of spring, and as sunlight illuminates a wall of stained-glass windows, music director Alieda Jaehn and pianist Cherie Larson ask if anyone has a song request.

“We haven’t done “Take Me Out to the Ballgame yet,” someone shouts enthusiastically. This may be the first time Larson, also a cellist and violinist, plays the popular tune on the church’s baby grand piano. As she looks for the music, Jaehn shares about her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a batgirl for Team Japan at the inaugural Women’s Baseball World Cup, held in Edmonton when she was a teenager.

“Who remembers Cracker Jacks?” someone else asks.

“A lot of what happens at Music Mends Minds is brought forward by the storytelling of the group,” says Jaehn. “I will have songs in mind to start us off, especially if people are of a pensive mind that day, but people can request anything.”

Music Mends Minds (MMM) is a supportive community that was started in Los Angeles by a woman whose husband had Parkinson’s disease and dementia. When she sought an explanation as to why he was still able to play piano even as his cognitive impairment progressed, the couple’s neurologist explained that musical memory pathways are different and persist long after the loss of recent memory pathways.

Supported by Rotary International, MMM has chapters across the U.S. The program uses music to engage people who have a cognitive impairment and their companions. Dr. Anne Fanning, a retired physician and educator, approached the Rev. Madeleine Urion to see if St. George’s Anglican Church, located just blocks from the University of Alberta Hospital and Cross Cancer Institute of Alberta, would consider hosting a local MMM chapter.

“I had a friend who loved music and was involved with this program in the latter years of his life with dementia,” says Fanning, 84. “His widow now says MMM was the best part of those years. At my age you look around and see a lot of people with challenges as the disease progresses. What’s challenging is that they have lost many connections,” says Fanning, who was awarded the Order of Canada for her work on trying to eliminate tuberculosis in Canada. She arrives early every week with an armload of songbooks, ready to greet people as they make their way down St. George’s wide sidewalk straight into the church.

Currently, the MMM group consists of around 20 members and their caregivers. Fanning predicts this number will continue to grow “as more people hear about us. I think there are a lot of people out there who would really enjoy being here.”

Today, Fanning also gives the participants a list of lovingly curated song selections, acknowledging Jill and Vince Lurie for providing them.

“My husband and I love happy music, so I came up with a list of fun songs for everyone,” says Jill. “I’ve loved every minute of Music Mends Minds since we started coming in October. I wish we could have it more than once a week. Music feeds the soul and lifts your spirit. It really is good for people with dementia and seniors, in general.”

Jill’s husband Vince was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, in 2017. When he had a knee replacement, “the anesthesia really did a number on him,” she says. “It developed into dementia pretty fast.”

While Jill has been looking for “every opportunity” for Vince to be involved in activities and socialise, she has yet to come across a local medical program specifically designed for someone who has dementia. “This (MMM) has been a blessing to us both.

“Being a caregiver is very stressful,” she adds. “But when we walk out of here, I’m like a new woman. It’s so relaxing to forget all your problems and just have fun.”

In addition to its partnership with St. George’s, the MMM Society has forged connections with local neurologists and Fanning anticipates additional doctors and clinicians who practice medicine in the neurological, geriatric and related fields, as well as the Alzheimer’s Society and Parkinson’s Society, to become referring partners in the future.

“St. George’s is small and aging, but we have a huge amount of spirit,” says Urion. “We’ve been recognising more and more that, rather than to start our own groups, our call as the church is to help groups that are already formed to flourish.”

“Our vestry very quickly saw MMM as an amazing opportunity for people experiencing cognitive loss, be it from an organic condition or injury, to be in relationship through music.”

Urion humbly observes that musical expression, and the quality and quantity of music at St. George’s, could be even “more important to our congregation than the sermons.”

A parish team helps coordinate the Tuesday morning gatherings, doing all they can to make the participants feel welcome. Funding from the Anglican Foundation of Canada will ensure MMM continues once a week at St. George’s until June 18.

“It’s wonderful when parishes can start something based on the expertise, capacity, and availability of the people who are in the Sunday morning congregation,” says Urion. “But that’s not always the case anymore. I think we have to look beyond our own parishes to the Body of Christ in the world. The future of the church is letting go of what is conventional and broadly imagining our purpose, our relevance and our resources.

“One-third of our congregation actually worships online, because they are home, or in extended care, and they can’t get here on a Sunday morning.” Accessibility and inclusion are “primary values” of St. George’s community.

“Jesus was all about bringing people who are isolated into the heart of the community and finding healing there, which is exactly what Music Mends Minds does,” Urion says.

St. Patrick’s Day has just passed, and Jaehn uses the occasion to introduce “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and “Danny Boy.” Many members of the group smile and sing along. Someone comments on how beautiful the piano sounds accompanying the beloved tunes.

“Music is one of the only things that engages all parts of the brain, right and left sides, as well as our core memories,” says Jaehn whose passion for music therapy and ability to lead conversation make her a natural fit for the MMM community. “When we’re 12 years old and make choices in music and then we hear that song again at age 60 or 70, we go, ‘Oh, this is taking me right back there.’

“We don’t know exactly what people in the room are dealing with, we just know that we’re here to be together and make music. While we acknowledge and hold space for their struggles, we’re also acknowledging that this is a space to just be, in whatever state we’re in.”

For more information and to register for Music Mends Minds, call or email Dr. Anne Fanning at 780-966-9861, [email protected] .