Center explores musical remedy to memory care

Grace Sun, Melodies for Remedies founder/president performs at the Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers in Chula Vista

Music is in the air at the Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers in Chula Vista as student musicians have been performing at the memory care day center both virtually and in person since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bishop’s School Melodies for Remedies began as a club when the pandemic hit, but now the student run organization has become a nonprofit dedicated to helping seniors with an array of student musicians waiting to display their musical talents in hopes of giving seniors a better day and to bring back memories through their music.

Melodies for Remedies Club founder and president Grace Sun, 16, from Rancho Penasquitos is a rising senior at The Bishop’s School. The Bishop’s School is an independent, coeducational college preparatory day school founded in 1909 and is affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Sun is a classical trained pianist, playing for more than 10 years, but now loves to experiment with diverse types of music. She especially likes playing music from the 1950s.

Sun said when the stay at home orders came in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was touched by news reports on the isolation of seniors at senior homes and Alzheimer’s care centers.

“They were the most vulnerable group of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “I met some seniors before at our service project where we built a performance for our local senior home. That performance really touched me, and I decided to contact that senior home and many around San Diego County area and we started online concerts with a few close friends.”

Sun said she received much positive feedback from the seniors and residential managers, and as they moved forward, they grew. Now, Melodies for Remedies has more than 80 student musicians, many from Bishop’s, many from around San Diego, but also students that have joined the nonprofit from across the country, and recently got two members from the United Kingdom and India.

“We got more students interested and involved,” she said. “In contacting the Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers, they were one of our first supporters in 2020 and they came to almost all of our virtual concerts and we really appreciated that. As we went through reopening, to now, we really wanted to give back for all the support they gave us. We are starting to do a lot of performances for Alzheimer’s patients, specifically in San Diego because music is really beneficial therapy for making them feel happy and connected with others.”

George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers Innovative Programming and Volunteer Services Director Uriel Perez said when Grace Sun reached out to the organization in hopes to bring music to its participants during a time when they could not have entertainers in person, he said it was interesting to him to see how they would react to a Zoom presentation.

“We are in a facility that features 1950s storefronts,” he said.

“There is a diner in here, a pub, a city hall, a park, a replica of our first Glenner location, and I was not sure how technology, our atmosphere and participants would work out. But as soon as the participants saw the screen it was wonderful with all the smiling faces. When Melodies for Remedies started to perform, our participants lit up, they engaged, they asked questions to the students, they requested songs. I realized that the partnership there had started to become something. There was a reaction from our participants and the consistency of the student performing every month was something great to experience during the pandemic.”

Perez said now that the students are coming in person, there is more engagement, more of a reaction, participants can hear the music clearly, and the student musicians are able to interact with them. Perez said this is important with people with memory impairment, as he believes that “music lives in everyone.”

“Music is how we connect to individuals,” he said. “Music is a way that we can tap into their memories. We all connect with music one way or another. But when somebody with Alzheimer’s or any type of dementia listens to music, especially a genre back in their day, we try to bring our participants to the era they are most comfortable with where they have most of their memories. To have music from that era brings them joy, happiness. It brings them memories. I think that is pretty magical.”

Sun said this is an opportunity for students like them to get to know a group of people that they typically would not have the chance to understand.

Joseph Aguilar, 18, from Carmel Valley, just graduated from Bishop’s and is heading to Yale University this fall to study computer science. He has been singing with Melodies for Remedies for two years.

“I started singing in seventh grade,” he said. “I have been singing more of the big band, swing-style, Frank Sinatra, that sort of music. That is what suits my voice the best. But I also enjoy singing a lot of musical theater as well.”

Elizabeth Jin, 16, from La Jolla, is a rising junior at Bishop’s, and sings with Melodies for Remedies, and is also the club’s social media manager.

“I started singing when I was 8-years-old,” she said. “I sing mostly classical music, but I have started to branch out more recently, mostly because of choir.”

Sun said live concerts were rewarding for her after doing online and virtual concerts.

“As a classically trained pianist, and competitive in piano competitions, performances were a big part of my life before the pandemic,” she said. “Having music that links two very different groups, student musicians and seniors living with a terminal illness is a starting point for establishing that connection. In live concerts, we are able to initiate the natural flow of conversation, and sometimes that conversation is one of the most valuable things that can happen. The seniors and the performers get to know each other in terms of music, what the seniors liked to do when they were younger and similarities between now and then. Having that talk and getting to know a person better is something I think everyone treasures a lot.”