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Music as a form of therapy for those with memory challenges

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Ilana Waldston, facing camera, leads a recent Recollectiv rehearsal.

On a recent weekend afternoon, despite the rainy weather that kept the numbers down, Marjorie Taft was at the piano at Recollectiv’s weekly rehearsal.

Accompanying her were people affected by memory challenges caused by dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke or a brain injury. Music students and community members also form part of the band.

Taft, 91, has been part of Recollectiv since it took up its weekly residence at the Tranzac Club, off Bloor Street West in Toronto’s Annex, last March.

She’s played piano since she was four years old and she used to teach. “I’ve always loved music and I don’t know what the world would be like without it,” she said.

At the rehearsals, she and the rest of the band – up to six members the afternoon The CJN attended – play tunes ranging from popular songs of the 1930s, like “All Of Me”, to hits of the 1960s, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

The audience, including people with memory challenges and their caregivers, sing along, reading from binders of printed lyrics.

“Singing is one of the most healthy exercises you can do,” said Ilana Waldston, the founder of Recollectiv and a jazz vocalist, who, along with other hosts, leads the singers at rehearsals.

“Singing gets you breathing and stretches you inside like a yawn would, and then in terms of your connections to your emotions, a lot of music brings up emotion, good feelings and memory.”

Waldston got the idea for Recollectiv after hearing a band called 5th Dementia on a U.S. National Public Radio station. The group features players who, according to the band’s website, struggle to remember anything at all due to their illnesses.

Waldston’s mother, Shimona, who’s 90, started showing signs of vascular dementia in 2013. Since she’d always enjoyed music, Waldston got Toronto Symphony Orchestra tickets for both of them.

But then Shimona’s disease began to progress and she started singing along with the orchestra, Waldston said. On the Internet, Waldston found listings of relaxed summer performances where Shimona could sing, clap along or dance, but not much programming suitable for her existed in the winters.

“That’s why I started Recollectiv, because it was so hard to find stuff for her,” said Waldston. She founded the group with help from Carol Rosenstein of Music Mends Minds, an American organization that creates bands for people with memory challenges, and with the support of many local volunteers who donate their time and talent.

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The rehearsals help combat the self-imposed isolation of people who have been diagnosed with a cognitive issue. “They’re embarrassed. They don’t want to be with their social peers because they’re afraid they’ll be found out,” Waldston said. At Recollectiv rehearsals, no one quizzes participants about their diagnoses.

A fair bit of scientific research has been done to show that listening to and playing music can benefit the brain. Waldston said she sees the beneficial effects of music at the rehearsals. “I can see the kind of therapy that is so obvious and visible to anybody who’s there, the feeling of joy, the feeling of being normal,” she said.

Between 20 and 40 people attend each week and there’s no charge. The group meets in a cosy pub in the Tranzac Club and the bar is open during rehearsals. “I love the idea of having the group meet in a place that does not feel clinical,” Waldston said.

 

Recollectiv is having a fundraiser on May 11 in the main hall of the Tranzac Club, at 292 Brunswick Ave., hosted by the jazz singer and broadcaster Heather Bambrick. The afternoon also features performers Sam Broverman, Oasis Vocal Jazz, Ros Kindler, Beverly Taft and Waldston, with band members Michael Shand (keys), Ross MacIntyre (bass) and Terry Clark (drums), as well as raffle prizes and a cash bar. Doors open at 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 at the door or $20 in advance at recollectiv.ca.

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