Nancy Gustafson hopes to improve the lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia through the power of music.

A Bienen School artist in residence and a professional opera singer for more than 30 years, Gustafson (G80) founded the Songs by Heart Foundation to bring quality-of-life-enrichment programs into retirement communities nationwide. Through interactive live music programming, the organization aims to improve the intellectual, physical, social, spiritual, and emotional well-being of those with age-related memory issues.

“We’ve been seeing amazing results,” says Gustafson. “In my opinion, every retirement community ought to have these programs every day. It makes the lives of people who have dementia that much better.”

During a 12-week pilot program in spring 2015, Gustafson partnered with the North Shore’s Presbyterian Homes to bring vocalists and pianists to Westminster Place in Evanston, Lake Forest Place in Lake Forest, and The Moorings of Arlington Heights for programming five days per week. The performers’ song book, customized for each community based on feedback from residents’ family members, included classic tunes from Broadway and Disney as well as old favorites such as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

A key aspect of the Songs by Heart sing-along program is the interaction between musicians and residents. Before and after each session, the vocalists shake hands with every resident in attendance, making eye contact while welcoming them or thanking them for listening. Throughout the performances, they hold hands and sometimes dance with residents to further connect them to the music and their emotions.

“We have found that providing an interactive program, where you’re actually engaging the people and connecting to the people, is the important thing,” says Gustafson. “There is a huge difference between someone with dementia just listening to music as a passive activity and actually singing with the musician in an active way.”

A music-therapy consultant oversees the musicians and trains them to work with people with dementia. In order to be selected for the program, artists must demonstrate strong interpersonal skills as well as exceptional musical talent.

Several Bienen School of Music alumni have participated in the outreach program, including vocalists Emily Becker (G08, CP09), Caitlyn Glennon (G11), Sarah Simmons (G10), and Ethan Simpson (G15) and pianists Jason Carlson (04, G07) and Ellen Morris (G14).

Emily Becker, who also serves as Songs by Heart’s artistic administrator, says it is truly heartwarming to see how much joy the program brings to everyone involved. “There are people at each location who seem to be asleep through the session but say ‘Thank you’ or ‘Come back soon’ with their eyes closed as we are saying goodbye,” says Becker. “I can’t imagine how dark and scary life must be for these folks who don’t even open their eyes often, and to see them smile or even communicate just affirms that what we are doing is making a real difference in their quality of life, if only for an hour a day.”

Gustafson was inspired to establish Songs by Heart after her mother—a 1949 Northwestern graduate—developed Alzheimer’s disease. Frustrated at being unable to communicate with her mother on any level, Gustafson turned to the piano. She was surprised when her mother commented on the playing and singing after only a few minutes—first saying that it “wasn’t very good” and then agreeing that it was much better after Gustafson switched to a different song.

“I joked with her that we could play music at the local mall for money, and she replied, ‘Yes, we’ll be the Gustafson Family Singers.’ I was shocked! Not only did she remember who I was, she came up with a new idea on her own for the first time in months,” says Gustafson. “Before we made music together, my mother didn’t recognize that we were related.”

After that breakthrough, Gustafson and her sister arranged for a music therapist to visit their mother once a week and for a vocalist to sing with her two days a week. Impressed with her mother’s continuing response to music, Gustafson knew she wanted to find a way for others with dementia to have daily access to a program that could improve their quality of life through music.

The Songs by Heart pilot project helped Gustafson and her team develop best practices for interactive programming under the guidance of several consultants, including Mary Ann Anichini, vice president of continuous quality improvement at Presbyterian Homes. Anichini tracked residents’ engagement at all three locations during the 12-week period to measure the program’s effectiveness. Interviews with family members and caregivers suggested that resident participation and alertness continued even after a given music session ended.

Building on these initial assessments, Gustafson is collaborating with fellow Bienen School faculty member Steven Demorest, professor of music education, and Darby Morhardt, research associate professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center, to develop a more controlled research study and gather additional data.

Ultimately Gustafson plans to organize a national board of directors for Songs by Heart and offer programming in as many elder care facilities as possible. “I understand now why I studied music, why I was a performer, and why I have been teaching voice,” says Gustafson. “Everything was preparing me for this. This is where I feel I can really make a difference in people’s lives.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Fanfare. 

  • Nancy Gustafson
  • Steven Demorest
  • music education