Second grader Sydney Byler has loved Mondays the past six weeks. That’s because the school day has ended with a musical visit with new friends at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community.
“It’s fun to talk with them!” she explains, skipping her way to a recent visit together with friends in grades two to five and the program coordinator, Cameron Dusman.
Dusman, a master of music student at James Madison University, is focusing her thesis work on intergenerational musical communities. She has led the students and VMRC residents in sessions with storytelling and songwriting. Together the children and seniors have crafted a variety of texts including creative stories, poems, and, most recently, song lyrics that the group then set to melodies to sing together. Rhythm instruments add another component.
Before entering the building, Dusman reviews what will happen with the students, encouraging them to make eye contact and greet their friends warmly. The reminders are hardly necessary as the students eagerly engage, sharing hugs and smiles generously.
“Pumpkin pie, cranberry pie, apple pie too; with whipped cream and ice cream; don’t forget the gravy! Juicy turkey and fluffy mashed potatoes; special sweet potatoes and a little bit of stuffing…” goes the text to a Thanksgiving song the residents and students wrote together before the holiday.
The group discussed revisions, and students also eagerly suggested melodies to accompany the lyrics. Residents enjoy sitting back to watch the children’s creative energy, and often contribute ideas as well.
“I noticed one senior who listened quietly in our early sessions,” said Dusman. “In a later session, she softly commented. It seemed important to her to add some grace to God into the song. The group responded enthusiastically, and one student pointed out a way to adapt a new line: ‘Giving thanks as we gather with some grace to God.’ It was beautiful that they had all worked together on the final product.”
“It’s a joy to see how natural and comfortable young children are with the elderly,” notes Lolly Miller, Arts and Education Program Manager at VMRC. “It seems children often grow less comfortable with seniors as they grow up, but these elementary students seem natural and comfortable. Our residents love the interaction.”
Some of the residents of Elm Neighborhood, where Dusman has brought the children, live with the effects of dementia or Alzheimers. Research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease,” the clinic reports.
Participation in the arts could also help rewrite the negative narrative that society tends to associate with dementia, observes Dusman. “Being diagnosed with dementia can come with a stigma and be isolating,” she says.
Elders hold valuable creative capacity to share with people of other generations, Dusman contends. “Arts programming for seniors living with dementia has begun to view music not simply as a tool to recall their old memories or manage their symptoms, but rather as a way to empower them to creatively impact their community.”
The sessions at VRMC have been modeled on two such existing programs: TimeSlips Creative Storytelling, founded by Anne Davis Basting, and Songwriting Works, founded by Judith-Kate Friedman. Research by Basting, Friedman, and others suggests that dementia-related memory loss often does not preclude the brain’s ability to create original artistic ideas.
Dusman has been excited to see such research come alive in the project at VMRC. “The students and the seniors have made all the creative choices to direct our project, and their collaboration has taken interesting, imaginative directions I was not expecting,” she remarks. “To me, the most exciting part has been seeing community form across generations when everyone is working together towards a common creative goal.”