Songwriting Works, Memory Clinic, Unique School Honored

Article excerpt


2007 MindAlert Awards

A songwriting program for elders with Alzheimer's disease, a memory clinic and workbook for everyday use and a unique intergenerational school were honored with the 2007 MindAlert Awards presented by the American Society on Aging (ASA) and MetLife Foundation during ASA's national conference in Chicago in March.

The MindAlert Awards recognize innovations in mental fitness programming for older adults by nonprofit organizations in three awards categories: mental fitness for cognitively impaired older adults, programs for the general population of elders, and older-adult learning programs where mental fitness is implicit


"I'm ioo years old or so I've been told

But I don't feel my age at all

I'll live and find out what this life is all


And I hope and I pray it's a ball!"

-From "I'm ioo Years Old" by elders from the Jewish Home in San Francisco, with Judith-Kate Friedman

"Songwriting Works offers elders with dementia a rare opportunity to be seen, heard, honored and celebrated through their own words and music," said singersongwriter Judith-Kate Friedman, who began the organization in San Francisco in 1990. Friedman, who recently moved. Songwriting Works (SW) to Port Townsend, Wash., describes SW's workshops as musical mural painting.

Friedman explained, "Professional songwriter-facilitators, trained in intergenerational music collaboration, engage three to 30 elders of diverse cultural and educational backgrounds, as well as varying physical and cognitive abilities." The workshops that focus on those with early-stage dementia, combine storytelling, musical improvisation and consensus building with the fundamentals of song composition, she said. SW's approach has been replicated in adult day health centers, as well as skilled nursing, assisted living and senior facilities, in cities as diverse as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C.vand Milwaukee.

SW workshops run 40-75 minutes, with songs completed in one or two sessions. Each session stands alone as its own experience, but the songs are developed during as many as 10 workshops. Friedman or another facilitator begins each session by having participants sit in a circle and greeting individuals by name. The SW leader starts the session with a familiar traditional song and, whenever possible, with a song of the group's own making to reinforce and validate the group's creative voice. The facilitator then solicits ideas for a new song, including possible topics, themes and musical genres; the elders' input directs the session. While the workshop leader and elders interact, scribes-usually volunteers or interns-render elders' remarks onto easel pads verbatim. As melodies spring from the group, participants repeat and refine them to match the written words.


"Group attention is kept in focus by the rhythmic pulse of a guitar," Friedman said. Key components of what Friedman calls her failure-free approach include frequent repetition of gathered words, rhyme and word play, open questions, humor, passion, and sincere and enthusiastic acknowledgement of each participant. Staff and family may join in. Lyrics and music are recorded digitally.

Each workshop group decides what a song should include by consensus, she said. Although not everyone can verbalize their feeling, Friedman emphasized that "a clear group 'yes' can be felt when a theme strikes a majority, a meaningful topic resonates or a rhythm catches hold." The facilitator listens and watches for strong responses including laughter, animated talk, reminiscences, poignant moments and ways to incorporate sonic or environmental interruptions into the process. Facilitators also watch for disinterest, discomfort or disengagement. As momentum builds, individuals experience their words, stories, values, concerns, humor, cultural or spiritual heritage, and imagination taking shape in a song that reflects all who made it. …