The journey with dementia: The power and therapeutic benefits of music (podcast transcript)

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The journey with dementia: THe power and Therapeutic benefits of music with Joshua Vickery, CEO, Encore Creativity, quote from podcast episodeMusic has the power to alter people’s emotions and sentiments in an instant. It has the power to alleviate tension, discomfort, difficulty, and distraction while also bringing enjoyment and tranquility into our life. Music has the power to unite people in a number of ways.

Music is being utilized to treat various memory-loss-related disorders such as dementia in the medical field. According to several studies, people with Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia can benefit emotionally and behaviorally by listening to or singing music. Because major brain regions associated with musical memory are generally unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease, musical memories are frequently maintained.

In this podcast, we are joined by Joshua Vickery, Chief Executive Officer, Encore Creativity. Joshua talks about the importance of music in our lives and how it affects our memory. He also suggested that music be utilized as a treatment for those suffering from memory disorders. He also discusses how music therapy might aid dementia patients and how it is gradually becoming recognized as an alternate treatment approach for dementia patients.

Click here to listen to Episode 3 of Season 1 of  “Life, Death and What Matters In Between”


Perry: Hello and welcome to Life, Death, and what matters in between. I’m your host, Perry Limes. And today I am joined by Joshua Vickery, Chief Executive Officer of Encore Creative for Older Adults. Good morning, Joshua.

Joshua: Hi. Good morning, Perry. Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Perry: Awesome. Awesome. So we are traveling on our journey with dementia. And in today’s program, we’re going to talk about the power of therapeutic benefits of music. And music is universal. Everybody is touched by music in some kind of way. So with that said, Joshua, I’d like for you to, you know, tell us a little bit about yourself. Give us some background on what you do. Go for it.

Joshua: Yeah. So I am now honored to be the first-ever CEO of Encore Creativity for Older Adults. We’re the nation’s largest and fastest-growing choral arts program for older adults located in multiple cities and communities. And I started my journey. I just moved here six months ago from Orlando, Florida, the Annapolis DMV area. And I started my journey in church music as a choral conductor. And I did that for many years and then transitioned to Walt Disney Entertainment, which was a very different line of business as the entertainment leader and casting director. And in that, I started the nonprofit that I founded in 2010 and led for 12 years called Central Florida Community Arts, which was a very large arts organization with choirs, theaters, youth programs, and dance programs for all ages and all abilities across the central Florida region. And so after leading that for 12 years, I realized that my passion lies around creating opportunities for older adults. And I was thrilled when I was offered the opportunity to become and lead this awesome organization.

Perry: That incredible effort, and say, hopefully, you’re bringing some of that good Orlando weather with you up here.

Joshua: So I don’t know though it is almost here now it’s still cold so I must not be doing most of it even too good.

Perry: You know Maryland weather is a little schizophrenic but it’s a great place and you’re in a great area of the state so welcome to our area. So before we get started, as we’ve discussed in previous episodes to help us better understand a person’s journey with dementia, we’ve created a composite patient and his name is Joe. And this patient, Joe, has lived with his wife Veronica for the past 40 years and has adult daughters who live out of state at this stage of Joe’s journey with dementia. Joe’s daughters are curious about additional techniques and interventions such as music that may be helpful for individuals with dementia. So keeping Joe in mind, when you think of a person with dementia, what role does music play in their journey with dementia?

Joshua: Yeah, it’s a beautiful question. So we all know, as you said, music is universal, that all of us, no matter where we are in our life stage, enjoy music, and music is connected to memories. If you think about when your kids were growing up or when you went to prom or the first song you were blasting when you got your first car, there’s music is so interwoven in parts of our life and part of our journey, and fortunately, that last part of our brain that tends to go is the part that recognizes music. And so as we understand music and we understand memories and how those two are connected, that’s why music in programs with dementia has become so important over the last couple of decades. And so music helps us to kind of come out of that space and be able to remember important things.

Perry: Yeah. Wow. That’s you know, it’s interesting when you say that, you know, being a middle-aged adult now, you can kind of look back on your life in different decades and you can pick out songs that have meaning to you because you remember where you were during that time and during that era. So it’s good too. I kind of put that all together. Are there any specific behaviors or conditions related to dementia where music can be beneficial?

Joshua: Yeah. I mean, we have seen just music being so powerful in rehearsals. You know, whether it’s early to mid-stages of cognitive impairment, aphasia, just other ways that the brain is affected. Brain health is affected. Music is powerful in those scenarios. We have seen people who have come into rehearsal who have been completely unresponsive, who aren’t quite sure why they’re there or don’t remember being at that rehearsal space before and at times might even be a little bit belligerent. But once they get into that rehearsal space and they’re sitting there with their care partner and they do hear music that they have connected with memories or some song that was important to them. Their face lights up, their chin lifts, and they sing every single word from memory. And it’s beautiful to see that connection happening. Their eyes light up. I think equally. Perry: That’s beautiful. Is the care partner who’s sitting right beside their loved one who gets just a glimpse of seeing them really, really come to understand. And those residual effects that we’ve heard from our care partners happen for hours, sometimes days after experiencing music in that way.

Perry: That’s amazing. So it’s interesting. It’s kind of a good segue into my next topic about music therapy. So my first interaction with the music therapists, I was actually in a room where music therapy was brought in and the gentleman, as you said, was non-responsive for quite some time. And the daughter wanted to intervene very much like Joe’s daughters and the music therapists asked the daughters, what was his favorite? Who was his favorite artist? And they said, John Denver. So the music therapist played a song, and it was like in verse two, when she was singing to him, he started to kind of join in and sing the verses. So needless to say, Kleenex was in abundance in the room, including myself, crying because it was just amazing to see this man light up just from hearing this song. So with that said, what is the difference between music therapy, therapeutic music and just enjoying music?

Joshua: Yeah, good question. And that’s a big topic in the health community. Music therapy has been on the scene longer than these types of programs that we’re talking about. We’ve known for generations that music is powerful to the brain. But in this kind of, you know, actual identified way, like the programming that we’re doing. But music therapy is different. Music therapy is with skilled professional health care therapists who are using interventions to produce health outcomes. And for us in the programs that we’re doing, you know, we are, you know, using music to create therapeutic outcomes. So there is a little bit of a difference between those two, where there are two things that are trying to happen from this. And the other is more therapeutic outcomes also.

Perry: So with that, are there certain instruments? Is singing involved? Because I know my experience with music therapy, some of them would sing along with the songs, the therapeutic music, music that Encore is offering. Are there certain instruments, certain genres of music? How does that work?

Joshua: Yeah. So there aren’t instruments per se. There is a piano that our conductor leads from. There’s a lot of movement, and so sometimes that’s in the chair, sometimes that’s standing. But we find that partnering music and movement together is extremely helpful. So there’s, there’s movement, there’s poetry reciting, there is kind of brain exercises that we interweave with the musical experiences, but we treat Sentimental Journey singers, which is our program for people with early stages being checked as a choir. So they get sheet music. You know, it’s a little bit larger print and all of that. But they have a choir folder. Their care partner helps to make sure they’re at the right music song. And we pick songs that we know that the demographic that comes to. Singers would recognize. These are titles that anyone and everyone would know that were on the radio through their early years. And so there’s music, there’s movement, there’s a piano, and then there are songs that we know that they can connect to.

Perry: That’s that. I’m glad you brought that up, because, you know, as we move through a more and more diverse world and try to make services accommodating to a particular population culturally, you look at gospel music where some folks might like that versus country music or blues, I guess. Or is the therapeutic music kind of moving towards that depending, as you say, on the audience for that specific individual or group?

Joshua: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. You know, we try to create a very, you know, diverse group of music specific to the population that we’re currently working with. But, you know, as time goes on, that music will change. I mean, 30 or 40 years from now, we might be singing Beyonce, you know, and sentimental or anything. That’s what our population remembers and loves and understands. So, yeah, we create diverse genres. You know, we might have hymns because those people grew up in the church and they know their hymns better than anything. So we try to create, you know, diverse offerings of music specific to what our current age and population really would, what it would attach to. But that will change, you know, as music diversifies, as, you know, artists change. You know, 30 years ago, somebody might not know who Judy Garland is or whatever. So I think we are diverse in our selections, but we have to also stay relevant to how our population continues to age.

Perry: So our core creativity has a specific community-based music program for those with dementia and their care partners called Sentimental Journey Singers. Can you share a little bit about that program?

Joshua: Yeah. So Sentimental Journey of Singers began pre-COVID. Our founder, Gene Kelly, I noticed that in all the different chorale programs that we had, some of our older adults were starting to have just a little bit harder time keeping up with the sheet music and keeping up with the experience, and then realize that there were cognitive impairments or early stages of dementia that were causing those that to happen. And so she worked with an organization in Minneapolis to create best practices, and we launched the Sentimental Journey Singers pre-COVID. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up very long, and then we tried to move it online, which wasn’t really all that successful. But we’ve been able to come back and we are now offering five different locations for Sentimental Journey singers. It’s a huge part of our vision to grow that program into multiple locations. This is about a person who’s dealing with dementia or some type of cognitive impairment and their care partner. So that’s the model where both can attend a choir rehearsal and then there’s a culminating performance at the end. One of the things that are super exciting right now is we are celebrating our 15th anniversary as an organization and we are about to have a huge concert that’s more music. Hall and our Sentimental Journey singers are getting to perform as a part of that very large concert. So not only are we creating these great music experiences and rehearsals, but we’re helping those dealing with dementia to still have great experiences in music-making and performances.

Perry: Wow. That’s wow. That’s amazing. How many singers or how many performers do you have in this program?

Joshua: So in Encore Creativity for Older Girls as a whole, we have about 1200 singers currently involved in Sentimental Journey singers. We have about 25 to 30 singers that are involved in the programs.

Perry: Wow. And what’s the impact not only for the person with dementia but their care partners or the caregiver? What’s the impact of this intervention?

Joshua: Yeah, the impact that I was saying is just about being able to connect with each other. You know, that connection between a care partner and the person dealing with dementia and also really from a brain health perspective and from a cognitive impairment perspective, we do see some of those residual effects after the rehearsal happens. So many benefits happen for the individual, but also for the relationship with the care partner.

Perry: And is this something that is usually at the request of, let’s say, the family or the caregiver? Have you had anybody from the medical community reach out to you and kind of ask for a referral to say, hey, I think this would help? I know as medicine tries to evolve and become more holistic if you would. Are you seeing any of that participation from the medical community kind of seeing the benefit of that therapeutic music?

Joshua: Yeah, the short answer is absolutely yes. When I was in Central Florida, we received a $300,000 grant from the hospital system to create programs like this as a continuum of care. Once those that were dealing with music therapy services came out into the community. And so we had music therapists who worked with this programming, which is super exciting. So we believe that some type of partnership will happen here with Sentimental Journey Singers and through Encore Creativity. But we are seeing that support. There’s more and more research being done about how music affects the brain. And so the more that, you know, the more research that comes out, I think the more that our health care organizations will be supporting this type of programming. I know that music therapists are already our advocates, for sure.

Perry: Absolutely. So I think 15 years is amazing. Congratulations on that. You know, and that’s looking at that from 30,000 feet. It’s just really amazing the impact that you have on these communities. But can you share a personal story about the impact of this that this program has made, that you have experienced yourself?

Joshua: Yeah, well, one of the beautiful things about my job as CEO, you know, I focus a lot on fundraising and partnerships and, you know, all sorts of things. But when I get to be in rehearsals and be with our singers, no matter what the age in our organization is 55 and older, all older adults. And so every single singer is on a different journey socially, physically, mentally, emotionally, you know, especially coming out of COVID. Our older adults are very much on different pages. But what’s so beautiful is that music brings them all together on the same page. We’re all singing the same notes and the same rhythms and the same message. And it’s this moment where I can see this kind of respect for older adults, where they can leave everything at the door and just enjoy the joy of making music together. And so I see on the faces I can’t see because of the mask, their mouths, and their eyes and their faces. And I can see the joy that music brings. And so when like you, you know, we have a model, a motto of really singing for life. And so I know we’re focused today on, on, you know, synovial journey singers and dementia and how that affects music. But for older adults on any part of their journey, music is powerful to their brain health and more importantly, just friendships and building community and joy. So it’s neat for me. My personal story is just a sit-in rehearsal and to be able to watch our older adults simply have a blast.

Perry: That is so cool. How does one become a part of this or how do they find your organization? How do they get involved? So I guess it’s a two-part question. How if somebody was interested and said, look, this is cool, I want to do this and maybe help, and I don’t know if you audition the way, you know, American Idol does. But if there’s a criterion, I think I. I think I sing well in the shower and my spouse tells me, stop that. Stop. So how would one, you know, look to be a part of this organization and help out? But then if you’re a caregiver and another individual that wants to utilize this amazing service, how would one contact you, or what would be the process of making that happen?

Joshua: Yes. So you can check out our website, All the information is there about all of our programs, whether it’s Encore Chorale, Encore Rocks, or Encore University, which is an online learning platform. And of course, Sentimental Journey Singers, whether we are working with a continuing retirement community or a senior center or whatever it be, all of the registrations and information goes through us. So you can go to our website, you can see all the different offerings, and you can get the information that you need. You can also call us at 410-216-0350. That’s our phone number. So we’re happy to help answer any questions or get you registered. And currently, we are doing our very best to make all of our sentimental journey singers programs completely free. So getting corporate sponsorship dollars or grants currently, that’s how it is. And that’s our goal to continue that. So if you are listening and you want to support that programming in any way, please reach out to us. Because our goal is to make that beautiful offering for care partners and their loved ones completely free.

Perry: That is great. Before I conclude, I just wanted to ask you is… Encore is online. So are any of your.. I know with COVID you were talking about kind of not being there on purpose or do you record any of your sessions? Could people look at them like, let’s say on YouTube or any kind of social media platform?

Joshua: Yes. So all of us are back to in-person programming. People must be vaccinated and sit and wear a mask. So when I was seen, about 1200 singers have come back to in-person rehearsals, but we also offer online rehearsals. So if people are not comfortable yet coming out or singing, they can participate in a live online rehearsal. And then all of those online rehearsals are recorded and can be watched or taken part in at any and any time that’s convenient. So we can be in an online live stream, watch it later recorded or be with us live or any of those three options for any of our programs.

Perry: Amazing. Amazing. I mean, with that, you know, we know that music can be very powerful for all of us in our own lives, whether it’s the joys of the lows in our lives. But it is especially for those living with dementia. I think, you know, you bring to light that that piece of the music being one of the last things to kind of go in that hearing. So, you know, thank you for sharing that. Joshua. So we would love to highlight encore creativity for older adults as a great community resource, especially for those living with dementia. And we would definitely welcome you back. Joshua. If there’s any more information, please reach out to the contacts that Joshua has shared with us, and thank you so much for being part of our podcast.

Joshua: Thank you Perry, it’s my pleasure. I appreciate the opportunity to share.

Perry: Thank you. And we’d like to thank the John and Cathy Belcher Institute for their generous support for our community outreach and educational programs. Thank you so much for joining us today.

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