When you think of the debilitating, painful trauma of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, you probably don’t think of people climbing onstage to belt out feel-good classics from the Great American Songbook.
But then you’re probably not thinking of The 5th Dementia, a Los Angeles group that keeps folks with neurodegenerative disease in the moment by playing music of the past — with help from a few teenage musicians.
It’s a Monday afternoon at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church in West Los Angeles, three facts that many of the members of The 5th Dementia are probably unaware of.
That’s no joke.
Of the dozen or so singers and musicians onstage, most are dealing with some form of cognitive decline. They’re men and women, mostly seniors. Some no longer speak, yet they can still sing songs they heard Frank and Dean croon decades ago, songs that have been embedded in their memories, tucked away in an area of the brain untouched by disease.
Family members and caregivers settle into pews in this cavernous chapel, which features massive karaoke screens on either end displaying lyrics.
Despite the obvious toll disease has taken on band members, many greet each other with hugs. Those who can speak say hello, those who can laugh do that too. The mood is not what you might expect.
“I thought, how am I going to do this? It’s going to depress me and I’m going to see things I don’t want to see,” says singer Diana Davidow, who has Parkinson’s. It’s mild, she says, so she feels lucky. Though she initially loved the idea of the band, joining two years ago was a big step.
“After a couple of times I fell in love with this whole group,” Davidow says. “I didn’t see anything but these personalities and their bodies and it doesn’t matter. We’re all here to support each other, have a few good laughs, which we do, and fool around.”
Not everyone in The 5th Dementia is suffering from cognitive issues. The group’s musical vision includes student volunteers from the Windward School in West L.A.
The kids don’t look at us as the old people, they kinda just have a good time,” offers Davidow. “One of them said, ‘they don’t even look sick. How come they don’t they look sick?'”
The 5th Dementia student volunteer Spencer Lemann, 17, who’s played bass with the group for three years. (David Gilstrap/KQED)
Spencer Lemann is one of the “kids.” The 17-year-old is a gifted upright bassist, and has been a part of The 5th Dementia for almost three years. For Lemann — who literally keeps the musical pulse of the band going — the idea of a teenager playing oldies with the elderly is no stretch.
“I’ve never really viewed it that way,” he says. “What we’re really sharing with each other is music. And for a lot of these guys, I’ve learned more about them from playing with them than talking with them.”
As far as the playing goes, not everyone’s chops are up to Lemann’s level, but the band’s mission is not to redefine shredding. The amazing thing about The 5th Dementia is that it exists at all.
“It is a miracle, it’s magical and it’s given us a life,” says Carol Rosenstein, who, along with her husband Irwin, founded Music Mends Minds in 2014, the non-profit organization that spawned The 5th Dementia. Carol had the idea when Irwin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and dementia.
“I noticed when he was playing the piano at home he was resurrected like a plant needing water, and this was coming from playing a musical instrument,” Says Rosenstein. “The neurologist said, ‘Carol, you’re looking at the power of music changing brain chemistry.’”
“The brain doesn’t forget music, it forgets everything else but music,” says Kelly Hodell. He’s a Marine Corps and Navy veteran who served as a medic during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Now he serves with The 5th Dementia, volunteering on harmonica.
Carol Rosenstein, who founded the 5th Dementia with her husband Irwin after he was diagnosed with dementia. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)
“We have people in here that can play all kinds of songs but can barely carry on a conversation,” says Hodell. “I think it wakes up a part of their mind and a part of their memories ’cause music is like a time machine. It takes you back to times and places and people that meant something to you in your life, and also keeps them socialized and active and a part of life.”
According to a report in AARP magazine, “music can not only improve the mood of people with neurological diseases, it can boost cognitive skills and reduce the need for antipsychotic drugs.”
Right now there are six other bands in California and Washington under the Music Mends Minds umbrella, with five more in the works, including a group in the Philippines. So far, Carol Rosenstein has handed out over 1,000 How to Start a Band kits.
“I’ll tell you, when serious disease comes, there’s a lot of isolationism, and now we have people from the community, and they come weekly to be in this musical and healing environment and become happy,” says Rosenstein as the band kicks into the classic song, As Time Goes By. “That’s what we’re selling, happiness!”