Judy Nicolari, an accomplished singer, knows firsthand the power of music — she sees it every time she watches her sister’s eyes light up with joy during the pair’s rendition of “New York, New York.”
What is so powerful about Nicolari’s sister erupting in song? It is the music that has awakened Nicolari’s sister from the darkness of dementia. And now Nicolari wants others to feel this joy through Music Mends Minds, a program designed to help patients suffering from dementia heal through music.
“It is amazing,” said Nicolari, Ansonia city treasurer and director of the Valley chapter of the Sweet Adelines, an a capella group. “[My sister’s] face lights up … her eyes. She’s a whole new person, and it’s just so wonderful.”
Nicolari learned of the Music Mends Minds program founded by a California woman whose husband was suffering from dementia. One day, the woman came home to find her husband, who’d been distressed for eight years, playing the piano.
“He was down in the dumps,” said Nicolari, “but when he was behind that piano, he was like a new person.”
Nicolari brought her message to the Derby-Shelton Rotary Club Friday, seeking support to begin New England’s first chapter of Music Mends Minds. And the idea was music to the ears of those in attendance at Brownson Country Club in Shelton, with several members offering to join a planning committee.
One supporter is Sandy Schuchmann, owner of Turn It Up, which offers music and movement programs for children. She is a Shelton native who also watched firsthand the power music has with dementia patients.
Schuchmann said her father, who had always loved music, also suffered from dementia. She recalled bringing her father — who at this point had even forgotten his children’s names — to one of his doctor’s appointments. It was near Christmas, and she said she put in a CD of holiday songs.
“As the music played, all of a sudden he started singing, and he sang every word … Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, all the classics we grew up listening to,” said Schuchmann. “It came out of nowhere. I was driving, laughing, crying. It was amazing to see. I will never forget that moment. It reinforced my belief in the power of music.”
Schuchmann also recalled some four years ago, when employees at Madison House — a facility housing individuals, many with dementia — asked that she come and perform for the children in the day care center, located on-site, that was for children of the center’s employees.
“While performing for the children, I watched as the residents watched and became involved with the music,” said Schuchmann. “What I witnessed that day I will never forget — the faces of the residents that were there, the pure joy. I’m just a person that believes what music can do and what joy it brings. I see what it can do for children, and, on the opposite end of spectrum, what it can do for senior citizens. Those with dementia need to feel that joy in their life.”
Another experience of sharing the gift of song came to Nicolari several years back when a grade-school friend was in the grips of dementia, and the family was poised to make the unthinkable decision of “pulling the plug.” Nicolari visited that friend, sang a barbershop-style song in her ear, and her friend smiled. The family noticed a dramatic change, and Nicolari’s friend, to date, recently celebrated her 30th wedding anniversary and has been thriving.
Nicolari said research by medical professionals across the globe have found that music is a positive trigger for helping build brain power, improve mood, and activate auditory, visual and motor areas of the brain, among other positive effects.
Valley Chamber of Commerce President Bill Purcell, an avid music fan and singer himself, lauded Nicolari for her passion and willingness to help others through song.
“We all know the power of music, and we’ve all been touched by someone or know of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s,” Purcell said. “A program like this can help destigmatize the disease.”
While Nicolari’s plan is in its infancy, she hopes it gains steam by presenting the idea to area Rotary Clubs. She would ultimately like to find a rent-free venue where she can bring together those suffering from the early stages of dementia to form a chorus. The chorus, in turn, would hold regular practices and ultimately stage shows for the public. Another idea is to bring the concept into nursing homes and senior centers, seek volunteers and form small choruses that ultimately would come together in song at various events.
And Nicolari said Shelton appears to be the perfect location, with so many potential locations, one of which she hopes could be the Shelton Senior Center.
“My goal is to make this happen, and I hope the Rotary will be a part of this,” added Nicolari. “We need to get the word out there. Anyone who played and has early dementia, we need to get them involved.”
Those interested in helping Nicolari in her venture, through volunteering for the chorus, helping with sponsorship, donating instruments or locating a facility, can contact her at 203-231-3603.
Jean Falbo-Sosnovich of The New Haven Register contributed to this article.