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How music rejuvenates the culture, history and memories of dementia patients 

A concert on Feb. 12, 2024, starring Lisa Fishman at the Weisman Delray Community Center, aimed to help people who have dementia or other causes of memory loss enjoy Yiddish music.
Verónica Zaragovia
A concert on Feb. 12, 2024, stars Lisa Fishman at the Weisman Delray Community Center and is aimed at helping people who have dementia or other causes of memory loss.

Because music helps people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia bring out memories, some Jews in South Florida find Yiddish songs effective.

Candy Cohn used to always speak with her mother, Lillian, in English with a few words here and there in Yiddish.

Then one day, Lillian, of Delray Beach, started singing a beautiful Yiddish love song called "Sheyn vi di Levone."

"I'd never heard her sing it. I never heard her play it. The look on her face and the joy. I hadn't seen that in her in a long time," Candy recalled in an interview with WLRN when talking about her mother, who passed away in 2022.

The song’s title translates to "Beautiful as the Moon." Cohn started regularly playing a video of actress and performer Lisa Fishman singing this song. She didn’t expect the music to tap into a memory bank her mom still had.

"It brought back so many memories for her," said Cohn, who owns Oasis Senior Advisors South Florida, which helps families find housing for older loved ones. "She started telling me how she first heard it, what she was doing and when she would sing it."

Medical experts have explored how music can activate memory for years. Neurologists explain that episodes of our lives first get filed away in an inner region of the brain, the hippocampus. Over time, memories get stored for the long term in the outer layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex.

“Even in a person with Alzheimer's whose hippocampus has been destroyed, those older memories are still able to survive in the cortex,” said Dr. Andrew Budson, who studies the science of memory. He works as the chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the Veterans Affairs Boston Health Care System and is a neurology professor at Boston University.

A song can get encoded in the brain, or consolidated, with an episode of one’s life, like a time and place. That’s called episodic memory. Learning the lyrics and the melody of a song becomes part of semantic memory, which is the general knowledge, like facts, that we accumulate over time.

“You get this sort of resilient memory that is well-preserved in the cortex, that is still linked to an episode of someone's life. It's a semantic memory linked into an episodic memory, and so we can use the semantic memory, whether it's the music or the language, to pull the episodic memory out.”

What’s more, when we tap our feet, clap our hands, and nod our heads to a song, that activates the body’s motor system… and procedural memory.

The combination of episodic, semantic and procedural memories can make memory more resilient.

“Maybe we could use [music] as a tool to help people remember better,” Budson said. “The main thing my lab is interested in is, can we find tools and techniques and habits that people can use to help them remember things better, to allow them to live more independently in their own homes for a longer period of time.”

Music as therapy

Tino Negri has seen the results of music therapy for many people with dementia. He’s an owner of a company in South Florida called ComForCare, which provides respite for caregivers. He’s also done a lot of volunteer work at community centers across the region, bringing interactive music programs to residents with memory disorders.

“Music is the one thing that opens up people's brains, and it helps fire off neurons on both hemispheres of the brain,” he said — pointing to serotonin, which helps our mood, dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning and emotion, and endorphins, which reduce stress and pain. “These are chemicals that make people happy.”

Negri urges caregivers to play music at home, but not just any songs. Rather, those that are tailored to their loved ones. What they loved or moved them in their youth.

Long-term memories are still accessible long into a disease like Alzheimer’s and can be sources of comfort for people, according to Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and the chief medical officer for the MIND Institute of Miami Jewish Health.

“Yiddish is known as mame loshn, which means mother's tongue,” Agronin said. “It's a language that touches into culture, into religion, into one's history.”

Agronin said when music moves a person, it involves the entire brain.

He has been moved to see “someone who otherwise might be somewhat withdrawn and really experiencing significant short-term memory deficits literally come alive when you play music that touches into them,” said Agronin, who recommends personalized programs like the Miami-based Mind & Melody.

Treatment has to be individualized because different music works for different people.

“Someone who grew up with Yiddish music, this might be something that really inspires them," Agronin said, "but I've worked with patients from all over the world, and I've been exposed to so many different types of music that they love,” like music from Cuba and India. “It's wonderful when you see someone really almost appear rejuvenated by the music.”

Remembering the past with song

Actor Avi Hoffman and his mother, Miriam Hoffman, a renowned Yiddish expert, are passionate about speaking in and teaching the language.
George Schiavone
Actor Avi Hoffman and his mother, Miriam Hoffman, a renowned Yiddish expert, are passionate about speaking in and teaching the language.

Miriam Hoffman is a renowned Yiddish author, playwright and former journalist who taught the language for nearly three decades at Columbia University.

On a recent morning in her Coral Springs apartment, she sang an array of songs in Yiddish, reciting the precise lyrics without missing a word from the lyrics.

She sang along with her son, Avi Hoffman, a famed actor. They sang songs like "Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym," which means "On the Road Stands a Tree," and "Oyfn Pripetshik," meaning "In the Fireplace."

The tunes date back decades and harken to memories of her childhood as a young Jewish girl growing up first in Russia, then Poland, Austria and Germany before moving to New York.

What's striking about her ability to recall these songs, says Avi, is that she was diagnosed nearly five years ago with white matter disease, which is linked to dementia. Sometimes she needs help recalling details about her life — except when speaking in Yiddish.

“It comes so natural that I don’t even think to speak Yiddish. It just flows,” Miriam told WLRN.

To remember events of the past in English, though, she sometimes needs a little help from her son.

He has made more than 200 videos on YouTube, in Yiddish and English, through a nonprofit dedicated to spreading the love for the language that the Hoffmans co-founded, called Yiddishkayt Initiative. Avi says these are especially helpful for people who spoke the language in childhood and might be at home without fellow Yiddish speakers.

"I am always amazed at how readily my mother's memories are clearer when we speak or listen to her beloved Yiddish language and music," Avi said.

Having witnessed that joy herself with her mother, Candy Cohn decided to sponsor a Yiddish concert in Delray Beach in February. Lisa Fishman, the singer in the video Cohn used to play for her mother, was in town from Los Angeles and came to perform at the Weisman Delray Community Center.

The concert had a waitlist of people wanting to get in. Cohn said she plans to sponsor more to bring more joy, especially for people who have dementia.

Copyright 2024 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Verónica Zaragovia