CONSERVATORY NOTES: Support for those dealing with memory issues

Board Certified Music Therapist Kari O’Briant, MT-BC

HINGHAM JOURNAL – When I first heard about Memory Cafés two years ago, I was delighted at the concept. I’ve seen how Alzheimer’s has affected members of my own family, as well as the families of my friends; I imagine there are few people in this country who have not been directly impacted by it. How wonderful that we are creating opportunities to support the people dealing with this disease! I wish this had been available years ago.

In 2017, through South Shore Conservatory I began providing music therapy at Memory Cafés at various local Councils on Aging. These gatherings, designed for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as their care partners, offer a supportive, relaxed environment that eases feelings of stress and loneliness that can occur with these diagnoses and caregiving. I’ve been to cozy events that involved only a couple of participants and allowed time and space for deep discussion, and I’ve been to others with over 20 participants that were energetic and full of lighthearted laughter.

Cafés are typically provided in community spaces, free of charge, and staffed by individuals with experience in Alzheimer’s and dementia. They usually center on a theme, such as a co-occurring holiday, often include engagement in an activity such as art or music, and can include educational opportunities. Music provides space for expression and connection.

In my work, I have used music therapy interventions such as singing favorite songs, playing instruments, and songwriting, to encourage reminiscence, social connections, expressions of emotion, communication, and movement – all applicable goals for individuals attending Memory Cafés.

One of my great joys is witnessing families and communities connect through music. Within my work as a music therapist at these events, I’ve seen:

* married couples smile at each other while recounting how they met;

* individuals discuss their favorite Thanksgiving desserts and pie-making techniques;

* recent strangers cheer each other taking a drum solo;

* 25 people laughing and playing kazoos along to Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”;

* someone smile with delight at discovering how to play a new instrument.

Participants have the option of attending as many sessions as they like, as frequently as they would like. This setup creates space for connecting with peers in the community that they might not ordinarily encounter.

For example, a significant number of people with Down syndrome are expected to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as they age, and most of the Cafés I have attended have included individuals with Down Syndrome as well as individuals without. Too often, people who have Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities are kept separate from their peers. Inclusion is important to building a strong and supportive community, and Memory Cafés promote inclusion in multiple ways.

It has been a pleasure to share space with these people. Now I have the honor of facilitating the new SSC Memory Café on the third Thursday of every month at One Conservatory Drive, Hingham. While there is no cost to join in, participants are asked to register prior to each session by contacting Eve Montague, Director of Creative Arts Therapies, at 781-934-2731, x20 or For more information on the SSC Memory Café, visit:

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Kari O’Briant, MT-BC is a board-certified music therapist. She joined SSC’s Creative Arts Therapies faculty at South Shore Conservatory in 2011.