Ask Marcella Niedfeldt if she grew up with music, and she'll shake her head and say, “We weren’t songbirds.”
But start to sing "Jingle Bells" or "Deck the Halls," and she breaks into song -- remembering not only the lyrics but the tune. And, if she is so inclined, she might just dance.
What Alzheimer’s disease has stolen, old-time music gives back.
Such is the premise for "Alive Inside," a program that uses music to help resurrect memories and comfort people isolated by dementia and other memory-stealing illnesses.
At GracePointe Assisted Living and Memory Care, "Alive Inside" pairs seniors with music from their past and relies on tech-savvy Faith Lutheran School fifth-graders to build a connection.
GracePointe Assistant Administrator Megan Novell pitched the idea after showing “Alive Inside” to the staff. The documentary film follows a dementia patient named Henry, who had hardly spoken for 10 years. Given an iPod loaded with music from his younger years and a set of headphones, the movie shows, Henry not only recognizes the music but sings the lyrics.
Music provides an awakening, Novell said.
“While not everyone will experience a ‘Henry moment,’ the music can spark memories and give them stories to tell.”
Tuesday, Novell and 14 of the fifth-graders put that theory to the test with seven GracePointe clients.
A week earlier, the students asked the older people about where they were born, where they grew up, what kind of music they listened to and whether they had ever played an instrument, said Faith Lutheran Principal Krista Barnhouse.
The answers did not come easily -- if at all. Many of the elders have lost the ability to participate in and follow conversations. Names like Elvis Presley and Judy Garland are tough to come up with for people struggling with memory issues.
So the students turned to Spotify, looking up popular music from the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and Googled names like Bing Crosby.
Then they cued the tunes up on their iPads. And Tuesday, they went back to GracePointe with earbuds for themselves and headphones for their elderly partners.
The students plan to return weekly throughout the school year, and the school hopes to continue the program with each incoming fifth-grade class, said Pastor Gary Dunker.
On Tuesday, Harmony Bartels and Melissa Torres watched carefully as Sandra Humphrey first heard -- and then recognized -- “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Her face lit up. Her posture straightened. A smile crossed her lips and a twinkle sparkled in her eye.
“I wish I could remember who sang this,” she said as she hummed along.
“Judy Garland,” the girls answered.
“Is she the little girl walking with the Tin Man and the Scarecrow?” Humphrey asked.
“Yes, the song is from 'The Wizard of Oz,'” the girls said.
Down the hall, Barbara Cassel grinned as the music filled her ears: "I like it!"
“Have you heard it before?” Jadyn Converse asked.
“Oh quite a ways back,” Cassel said before singing along with Elvis:
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"And I love you so
Love me tender
Love me true
All my dreams fulfilled
For my darling I love you
And I always will"
Former drama teacher Constance Dillow swayed to the music.
“Did you know any of those songs?” Novell asked.
“Sure did,” she answered.
“Did you have a favorite?”
“Several of them,” said Dillow.
Niedfeldt sat side by side with Opal Kettler on a couch, each with her own headphones and fifth-grade friends.
Taelynn Fangman and Alex Ohnoutka sat by Kettler.
One week earlier, Fangman and Ohnoutka struggled to get a single answer from Kettler during their interview.
“Look, every question is blank,” Fangman said revealing her interview sheet.
But Tuesday, they returned with show tunes and sonatas.
Kettler smiled, tapped her foot and played along on the keys of an imaginary piano.
The woman, who revealed little just one week earlier, spoke of years long past. She used to play piano and the violin.
She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
And to her left, Niedfeldt sang “Auld Lang Syne.”
“This week they really opened up,” Fangman said of the ladies.
And truth be told, 14 fifth-graders discovered a little something about themselves as well.
“I feel more confident and more comfortable,” Fangman said.