West Falls Cafe uses music to connect with dementia patients

West Falls Cafe uses music to connect with dementia patients

Kristen Dixon spent a lot of time with her grandmother when she was younger, but dementia robbed Jeanne Corby of the ability to enjoy the kinds of activities they once shared so easily.

The two find a welcome respite at the Musical Memories Cafe, inside an old bakery turned performing arts venue, where people eat, sing and dance together.

The cafe, about 20 miles south of Buffalo, is a twice-monthly social gathering space for isolated seniors, those with dementia and their loved ones.

“It’s a nice memory to have with him, especially since it’s hard to make new memories,” said Dixon, 40, a medical accounts manager who lives in West Seneca.

Many cafe-goers walk slowly, use a cane or walker, or arrive in a wheelchair as they make their way to the tables at the West Falls Center for the Arts. They listen to live music for an hour, eat lunch and communicate together.

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Doug Yeomans performs at the Musical Memories Cafe at the West Falls Center for the Arts in West Falls.

Joshua Bessex, Buffalo News

“Music makes them remember their lives,” said musician Doug Yeomans, who began his set last Wednesday with “Here Comes the Sun.”

“You know when you’re that age and you’re thinking you have more years left than you do? I think it means a lot to them to remember you,” Yeomans said.

For regular people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, listening to music stimulates their minds.

“They will sit together and remember the line of the song. They will sing every line of the song. They will applaud,” said Carolyn Panzica, executive director of the nonprofit arts center, which has operated the memory cafe since 2018.

“For that hour, they get a little of that old joy back.”

The cafeteria’s recent lunch included pulled pork sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, salad and dessert. The music, food and company are all free.

Patrons enjoy a great time at the Musical Memories Cafe with Doug Yeomans and Rick Nicotra.

The need is great

In New York, Alzheimer’s is a growing crisis. The state has the second-highest prevalence of the disease in the United States, according to a study by the Alzheimer’s Association. About 410,000 New Yorkers age 65 and older have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to increase by 12% by 2025. People of color, lower incomes, and living in rural communities have higher rates of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

“These individuals are sometimes lost in time and place,” said Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour, a professor of neurology at Northwestern University. “That in itself causes agitation and anxiety when they can’t place themselves.”

In 2022, Bonakdarpour co-authored a study examining the impact of a music-based intervention on caregivers and patients with dementia.

Beyond the pain of the disease, family caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients endure emotional and financial hardships that sap their energy and time.

“When they’re anxious, they can’t help the patient, he gets into this vicious circle,” Bonakdarpour said. “Family members sometimes just give up work to take care of their loved ones.”

Memory cafes can serve as a refuge from the confines of the home, for both caregiver and patient. They provide social cohesion, peer support and access to health resources.

The National Recreation Network and ARCH Resource Center recently recognized the West Falls Cafe as an innovative and exemplary program for its service model.

Houses of worship, art facilities and senior centers are among the places that host such gatherings.

The success of the shows in West Falls prompted the nonprofit to expand its free memory cafe offerings to the Amherst Senior Center and the Dale Association in Lockport. The cafe has served almost 11,000 free lunches over the past two years.

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Happy, uplifting music is a common theme and expectation during Musical Memories Cafes, says Carolyn Panzica, founder of the West Falls Center for the Arts. “It’s a joyful event and we want the music to reflect that.”

Joshua Bessex, Buffalo News

European roots

The model, created in the late 1990s by Dutch psychiatrist Bère Miesen, aims to break down the stigma associated with dementia. Recent studies also show that social isolation increases the risk of dementia in the elderly.

“Isolation can feed into madness itself,” Bonakdarpour said.

Memory cafes are a life-enriching activity. They are not therapeutic interventions, nor do they act as respite care facilities where those with dementia can leave on their own. Their welcoming environments can offer people opportunities to play games, make art or enjoy music.

More than 1000 memory such sites operate in person or virtually in the United States, according to AARP.

New York has 18 listed on the Memory Cafe Directory website, memorycafedirectory.com, including the Syracuse Memory Cafe in DeWitt and a senior center that runs a memory cafe in Queensbury, south of Lake George. Cafes are usually funded by grants, individual and corporate donors, or religious institutions.

“It is known to them”

The spread of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, begins in the back of the brain. Neurons are damaged and brain regions shrink.

However, the front and middle areas of the brain, where long-term memories are stored, and the cerebellum – the part of the nervous system responsible for processing rhythm, balance and other cognitive functions – are not affected by the disease until later stages.

Alzheimer’s patients may recognize songs from their younger years. That shock from the past can calm and reduce agitation or anxiety.

“They feel safer because it’s familiar to them,” Bonakdarpour said, noting that music can be a way to communicate emotionally with patients if they become nonverbal.

Although considered safe, music can have negative side effects, Bonakdarpour said. Excessive noise can make patients uncomfortable.

“Sensory overload itself is not a good idea,” he said. “It has to be within a certain amount that is not overwhelming for people.”

Musical nostalgia can also be a trigger.

“Some songs can bring back bad memories for people,” he said. “Not everyone likes every instrument. Some people may have a bad experience with certain sounds or songs, so we need to know about that.”

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Flo Kollatz regularly takes photos during the twice-monthly Musical Memories Cafe events at the West Falls Center for the Arts and brings photo prints from previous concerts.

Joshua Bessex/Buffalo News

Keeping loneliness at bay

The three coffee shop locations in the Buffalo area draw 40 to 50 people, Panzica said. So far, she hasn’t made any complaints about the music being too tiring or overwhelming.

Talking to families guides how the nonprofit curates concerts at the memory cafe. Beloved folk tunes from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s dominate the setlists.

Happy and upbeat music is the common theme and expectation.

“It’s a joyful event and we want the music to reflect that,” Panzica said. “He can manage the stress of everyone involved.”

Local musicians serenade attendees and perform a variety of genres, from jazz, blues and bluegrass to classical, Japanese and African drumming. There are acoustic guitar and barbershop quartet harmonies. Those who visit the cafes also receive a free hot meal and spend meaningful time together outside of a clinical setting.

Florence Kollatz, of Boston, walks around each table at the Musical Memories Cafe in West Falls, greeting old and new friends and taking pictures with her cell phone. In the next session, the 82-year-old gives printed copies of the photos to those she photographed.

She once asked one of the regulars why she hadn’t seen him or his wife in weeks and why he arrived alone. The man told her that his wife had died, that Kollatz took the last picture of them together and now he keeps the picture on the fridge.

“That’s why I take pictures,” she said.

Kollatz brought no one to care during her first visit to the cafe and wondered if she belonged. She told Panzica that she only cares about herself.

“She says, ‘Then you’re welcome here,’ and I’ve been coming ever since,” Kollatz said.

A need met

Panzica and her husband, Bill, bought the building on Davis Road in 1996 and opened Butterwood Desserts. They sold the confectionery business in 2009 and with the help of Yeomans, eventually started live music and renovated the structure.

The arts center also offers children’s programs, music lessons for veterans and music therapy, Bill Panzica said. There are concerts almost every weekend.

Ticketed weekend events support other efforts, along with grants and donations, Carolyn Panzica said. To reserve a seat for those programs, call 716-570-6520 or email [email protected].

Linda Gonzalez, a 75-year-old retiree from East Aurora, used to bring her husband to the cafe where they could relax and enjoy some hospitality. He’s in a nursing home now, but she still comes to help and touch base with other caregivers. Others are also welcome to volunteer.

“You start talking to somebody and they’ll know exactly what you’re going through,” Gonzalez said, “and you can be a real support to each other. It’s just a very positive space where people can feel accepted.”

Dixon said her grandmother usually doesn’t say a word on the drive to the coffee shop. Corby doesn’t have many social skills anymore. She cannot call her friends and is unable to make plans on her own. She will forget that she has a granddaughter.

“But as soon as we pull into the driveway,” Dixon said, “she knows where we are.”

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This story was produced through the Solutions Journalism Collaborative of New York and Michigan, a partnership of news organizations and universities dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about successful responses to social problems. Reporting is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. Read related stories at nymisojo.com, where you can also find a detailed Caregiver Resource Guide with links to online information on various issues of interest to caregivers.

Eleanore Catolico is a reporter with the NY-Michigan Solutions Journalism Collaborative. Barbara O’Brien is a staff writer for The Buffalo News.

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