‘Music breaks barriers.’ Jam sessions inspire Alzheimer’s patients and care partners

Music is magic.

There’s nothing so powerful as a song to lift spirits, revive happy memories and ease the pain of life-altering diagnoses.

“Music takes you away,” said Jerri Ogden whose husband has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Jerri and Kenneth Ogden, of Merriam, participated in the Alzheimer’s Association Jam in January. She jingled a tambourine and Kenneth tapped rhythm sticks in time to “If I Had a Hammer” and other lively tunes in a rollicking hour-long jam session.

In the midst of dealing daily with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, “music helps you pause, relax and remember good times,” said Juliette B. Bradley, Kansas director of communications for the Alzheimer’s Association.

The group meets on the third Thursday of the month at Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park.

For an hour, the room in the library rocks with an eclectic blend of gospel, bluegrass, country and oldies as those with Alzheimer’s, their care partners and the musicians all share in the joy of jammin’.

Musicians volunteer to lead the singing and play instruments. Handheld percussion instruments are provided for those who come to take a music break.

Maracas, bells, claves, tambourines and other shaking instruments are well-suited for individuals with Alzheimer’s because “they are fun, easy to play and require no training,” said Anastasia Wheeler, music therapist with Soundscaping Source.

“Music breaks barriers,” said Pam Carleton, a guitarist from Overland Park.

Carleton said she volunteers because her mother died of Alzheimer’s and she wants to help others living with the diagnosis.

Kevin and Mary Corbett, of Leawood, bring guitars, a banjo, harmonicas and a passion for making music to the session.

Kevin Corbett and U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore started the jam session in 2013 after Moore was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Moore died in 2021 but is remembered fondly during the session with a shout-out, “This one’s for Dennis.”

Kenneth and Jerri Ogden of Merriam enjoy an Alzheimer’s Association Jam session.
Kenneth and Jerri Ogden of Merriam enjoy an Alzheimer’s Association Jam session.

The sessions are facilitated by Rachelle Morgan, owner of Soundscaping Source, a company that contracts with organizations and senior living facilities to provide music to older adults and caregivers.

Music therapy is also helping individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s at weekly choir practices at the Lenexa Senior Center.

“Parkinson’s affects all muscles,” Wheeler said. “Singing addresses the throat and swallowing. The vocal goals of the choir are to strengthen their voices, improve enunciation, clarity and increase breath support.”

At the Parkinson’s Choir Winter Concert in December, for example, choir members sang “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” to improve enunciation because the song requires so much precision, Wheeler said.

The choir started singing in person in the fall of 2019 and later turned to Zoom due to coronavirus restrictions.

The winter concert at Westchester Village of Lenexa was the first in-person concert.

Stuart Munro, of Lake Quivira, said singing in the choir gives him a “meaningful connection with people.” He joined the choir two years ago, a year after he was diagnosed.

Munro has a special appreciation for the value of music to improve an individual’s quality of life. He was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and taught courses in medicine and music.

Both the choir and the jam session are open to participants who want to Zoom in.

The choir and the jam session create a “community of peers,” said Rachelle Morgan of Soundscaping.

“They don’t have to explain when they come here — they can just be people making music.”

For more information, visit Call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.