How Music Can Mend Minds

Irwin and Carol Rosenstein

Source: The Rosenstein Family

The brain is powerful; the soul even more so. The combination of the two is the beginning of wisdom.

Music and the creative arts have a way of mending minds—mind-to-soul.

In Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, music and the creative arts, can often keep people whole as they grip life, tantamount at times to a terrifying ride on the Coney Island Cyclone.

Take the case of Glen Campbell, an icon in music and in life, who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s after a long, bruising battle—buttressed by the love and support of his wife Kim and children.

On the heels of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Campbell embarked on a celebrated “Goodbye Tour” with three of his children in the backup band. His farewell was the focus of an award-winning 2014 film, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, produced by Trevor Albert and directed by James Keach.

“Some inside this disease can talk about it,” notes George Vradenburg, co-founder of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s. “Few, probably a handful, can talk about it in ways that inspire…It is remarkable to see, and it says something about how we know or do not know how the brain works…There is something about training one’s brain for a singular moment in life. I saw this with Glen Campbell. In what was to be the final tour, he had scheduled three to five concerts—150 concerts later, Campbell would be on stage, playing music he had played all his life, yet when he got off stage, he often didn’t know where he was…”

Campbell’s innate genius was the kind of musical memory that the remarkable non-profit program Music Mends Minds seeks to nurture.

And then there’s the legendary Tony Bennett with the same gift of muscle memory in music. Bennett, now in the throes of Alzheimer’s, was the subject of a recent “60 Minutes” segment hosted by Anderson Cooper.

“On any given day, the 95-year-old may forget a lot about his past life,” writes Brit McCandless Farmer for CBS News. “He (Bennett) likely won’t recall the stories behind the photos that fill his New York City apartment, not the ones with Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney, not even the one with Bob Hope — the man who gave Anthony Dominick Benedetto his stage name: Tony Bennett. But when Bennett hears that music, the soundtrack that has accompanied more than seven decades of American life, the singer that millions have come to know, returns…”

Like Campbell, Bennett’s brain “is built around his music.”

Such also is the case with the late Irwin Rosenstein, the inspiration for Music Mends Minds, the creation of his wife Carol, who has offered a ray of sunshine for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Music Mends Minds was founded in 2014. It fashions musical support groups nationally and internationally for individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and other neurological disorders.

The vision of Music Mends Minds, now working closely with Rotary International Clubs, is to give hope to and encourage afflicted individuals around the world and their families, friends, volunteers, and caregivers.

Irwin had a great ear for music throughout his life, Carol says, noting he was a marching band member at the University of Pennsylvania and enjoyed playing saxophone and the piano. Professionally, he worked in real estate law for the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae). Irwin passed away in 2021, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an advancing form of dementia, on his 70th birthday in 2006, and later with dementia in 2015.

“Our home in Los Angeles was always filled with music,” Carol says. “We became volunteers for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And we spent time together at the Hollywood Bowl, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall.”

Then came the diagnosis. “This was shocking to me, especially having spent my life in healthcare and knowing a little bit about the challenging journey ahead,” she notes. After several years. Irwin’s prescribed Parkinson’s medication brought on hallucinations and agitation, as he believed there were other people living in his home.

Carol immediately called Irwin’s neurologist who advised reducing the dosage of Irwin’s medication, the cause of the hallucinations.

“Then one day,” Carols recalls, “when Irwin was feeling very low from reducing his medication, he chose to play his piano… and it became clear to me that something extraordinary had just happened. I called his neurologist again, who told me that I was witnessing the power of music changing brain chemistry.”

Carol was advised that playing the piano had such a complex neurological demand on Irwin that his brain pushed harder and harder for more natural dopamine (a neurotransmitter in the brain that sends messages between nerve cells). “It became clear that the music empowered Irwin; he became more aware, responsive, confident, energetic, talkative, and hopeful,” she recalls.

Carol asked Irwin’s doctor if this process meant “we could find some like-minded souls who had a similar diagnosis, so that we could all gather in a social setting to make music together—thereby changing everyone’s darkness into light.”

The rest is history.

After witnessing this dramatic transformation in Irwin’s condition, Carol was inspired to start a band to help others with neurodegenerative diseases, and The 5th Dementia Flagship Band was born. Since then, Music Mends Minds has grown to 20 bands nationally and has hosted 24 concerts.

Research shows that music can improve speech, attention, executive functioning, orientation, memory, and reduce anxiety, agitation and depression. The same is true for those blessed with other creative talents, as I’ve found it to be the case in my writing, as my journey continues down this twisted dementia path that has taken several family members.

In 2018, Carol was nominated for a “CNN Heroes Award,” which honors everyday individuals who do extraordinary things to change the world. Carol made it to the top 20, out of thousands of nominees. Then in 2020, “CNN Heroes” returned to document Carol’s pivot to Zoom sessions during the pandemic.

“We were featured in a story about the universal role music plays in changing brain chemistry and in helping to combat depression and isolation among seniors with cognitive issues,” she proudly says.

Music, indeed, has mended minds—yet another pushback on the oftentimes and sadly inaccurate stereotypes of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Anita Shire

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