Barbara Fosse, 81, has been in the desert for more than 17 years. After selling pharmaceuticals for 30-plus years, the Sun City Palm Desert resident is now program coordinator for Tunes for the Memory, a subsidiary of Los Angeles-based Music Mends Minds, an orchestra and music program targeted to those with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, other dementia-related conditions, traumatic brain injury and stroke, as well as veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Carol Rosenstein, a Los Angeles resident and 2018 CNN Hero, founded Music Mends Minds after what she describes as a “freakish moment” in 2014 involving her husband, Irwin, a person living with Parkinson’s.
“I walked in and heard him sitting at the piano,” she recalls. “He had previously played piano and saxophone, but hadn’t made music for the eight years since his diagnosis. I noticed how he seemed to resurrect while playing, responding like a plant that had needed nourishment. A doctor told me that I was watching music change brain chemistry. It’s absolute magic. Playing the piano had caused him to release dopamine. I realized that no medications seemed to be more powerful than the music.
“I got a few of his buddies to come and jam to have fun musically, and I had a big banner made up that said ‘The 5th Dementia.’ We had about 30 people at our launch. Within just a few minutes, some of them were gathered around the piano and starting to also make music. We now have 17 bands nationwide along with five global groups, including many in affiliation with Rotary International groups. We have band kits for those who want to start their own band, and we offer mentoring, all free as a community service. We’re now looking for music therapists to be able to expand our help to those who want to participate.”
In spite of disease progression, the ability to play music and recollect lyrics is often maintained. Participation can increase a sense of self-worth, confidence and identity. People can feel whole again.
“Science does show us today that playing a musical instrument is like a full body workout for the brain,” says Rosenstein. “It pushes natural neurotransmitters. Until science gives us a cure, we have a kind of natural medication available by playing music.”
Music Mends Minds’ website indicates that music directly affects neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change, repair and reorganize itself. It cites research studies showing that:
• Music improves mood by helping one feel happier and less anxious.
• Music may play a protective role against cognitive aging.
• Music improves pain control and reduces pain severity through activation of the brain’s reward centers and by lowering stress hormones such as cortisol.
• Patients with Alzheimer’s may forget certain melodic content of songs, but their ability to play their instrument seems to be unforgettable.
• Music can enhance cognitive functioning and neural processing more than any other art or hobby, allowing people to react and creatively process things more effectively.
Each Music Mends Minds location has its own band name: The aforementioned 5th Dementia in Los Angeles, the Band of Heroes in West Los Angeles, and the Beverly Hills Treble Makers, where Rosenstein says they get about 100 people every week.
Here in the Coachella Valley, Barbara Fosse saw an article in the paper about the Music Mends Minds program.
“I’m an organizer,” says Fosse, “so I called and asked, ‘Do you have anything for me to organize here?’ I had previously worked with Songshine Singers, a group targeted to Parkinson’s patients, and I always believed in the concept of how music can make a difference. But I felt it needed to go to memory issues as well.
“Music Mends Minds (started in) Sun City three years ago. … The Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage agreed to let us meet there. We call our group ‘Tunes for the Memory,’ and famed local pianist Bill Marx helped us kick it off. Now we meet every Friday afternoon from 1:30-3 p.m. from October through April. You’d be surprised how many people have backgrounds in making music. We have some really great musicians and singers.”
Fosse was born and raised In Illinois, and she graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in education, specializing in biology. Her first marriage to a high school sweetheart yielded two sons and a daughter. After living in Northern California for two years, they moved back to Illinois, where Fosse taught for three years and then “retired” to raise her children, working only part-time. After 17 years, the marriage ended, and Fosse began a new career.
“I took a job as education curator for the local zoo,” she says. “Then I became acting director, but when I applied for the director position, they hired a man. I thought, ‘What else can I do?’
“I became the first female sales rep for a pharmaceutical and veterinary medicine company. My by-word was, ‘If you don’t know more than the doctor, you’d better get out!’ I also became a trainer, teaching things like rape prevention.
“I loved working with the doctors … mostly. I do remember one office where one of the doctors asked me, ‘Why isn’t a man doing this job?’ And I said, ‘I’m a divorced mother with three children. Do you want me to go on welfare instead?’ That stopped him. He said, ‘By all means, keep on working.’”
Fosse’s affiliation with Tunes for the Memory has taken on an even more personal importance since one of her sons was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
“I’ve reviewed the literature about the impact of music on patients and their caregivers,” says Fosse. “They all benefit, and that also includes family, friends and the community. The musical environment not only lets people make music together, whether they tap, hum, sing or play an instrument, but it’s a way for them to express themselves, often when they don’t communicate in other ways.
“After participating in making the music, people are more connected, even more conversational. Their mood is elevated; functionality improves, and the impact can last for weeks.”
The impact of Barbara Fosse and Carol Rosenstein will last for a long time.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.