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The San Antonio Symphony Brings Music And Memories To Those With Dementia

Bonnie Petrie | Texas Public Radio
Kathleen and Jim Shaw (left) enjoy a reception with friends after seeing the San Antonio Symphony perform as part of UT Health San Antonio's Memory and Music program.

The San Antonio Symphony will perform Hollywood Hits this Friday at the Tobin Center. Before they do, they’ll perform the show for a special crowd: people with dementia and their caregivers. 

It’s part of the Memory and Music program at the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases. The Symphony and the Tobin Center welcome those with dementia and their caregivers to certain rehearsals so they can enjoy the music in an environment more suited to their needs.

Late last year the symphony held a similar event for the Memory and Music crowd, but instead of Hollywood-inspired tunes they performed Gershwin! at the Tobin. 

Jim Shaw was among the elated attendees. His date to the performance was his wife, Kathleen. 

Jim is a big fan of classical music, particularly Gershwin. 

"Gershwin just drives me nuts. Wonderful," Shaw said at a reception following the performance. He added, "I mean I grew up with it: Classical music."

Jim Shaw has dementia. Kathleen Shaw is his primary caregiver, and she said listening to live music in venues like the Tobin Center was a pig part of their life as a couple before Jim’s diagnosis.

"For 20 years we volunteered,” Kathleen remembered. “We were ushers down at the Lila Cockrell, and down at the Majestic and a few things they had here (at the Tobin Center) when it was the municipal auditorium… that goes way back."

But now the crowds and formality expected at a night at the symphony make it difficult for the Shaws to attend.

"For a cultural event like this it's really rare, there's so many logistic difficulties,” Kathleen said. “That's why this is such a wonderful outlet."

Melissa Flores is a counselor at the Biggs Institute. She said losing these parts of their lives can be devastating for those living with dementia and their caregivers, and the Memory and Music program seeks to restore them. She said the benefits of programs like this are clear.

"Not only for an individual living with dementia's quality of life and mood, but also for a caregiver,” Flores said. “Preventing a caregiver's stress and burnout and helping to fight some of the isolation feelings as well."

Kathleen Shaw added, "I think it enriches people's lives and it allows them to socialize and utilize the part of the brain that needs stimulation."

A growing body of research supports the idea that music improves cognitive deficits that are common in the middle stages of dementia. It can also ease anxiety. 

Flores looked around the reception room of the Tobin Center, where those living with dementia and their caregivers were sitting at tables of four, sharing hot drinks and cookies with other pairs facing similar challenges. They were talking about music, not symptoms or doctors appointments. She hopes more organizations will join the Symphony and the Tobin Center in offering dementia friendly events.

"A few modifications and some training can really make a world of difference in trying to help fight some of these feelings of isolation and just improve the quality of life for a population that really is dealing with quite a lot," Flores said.

You can find the calendar for future Memory and Music events here.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached atBonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.