On a sunny Friday afternoon in May, just after lunch at the Brown Adult Day Care Program, about 20 older adults gather in the library for their next activity. To the tune of Beautiful Dreamer, they settle into their seats to enjoy a little light music . . . familiar tunes to bring back memories and lift spirits.
Hands clap, heads nod. Some even hum along as 16-year-old Josephine (Jo) Pittman plays the viola accompanied by Nathalie Conrad on piano.
A junior at Berkley High School and an accomplished young musician, Jo started playing the violin when she was seven, then switched to the viola five years ago at the suggestion of one of her conductors at Interlochen. “I tried it and fell in love with the instrument,” she tells us.
Heading for her senior year and her ninth season at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan this summer, Jo has played first chair in both her school orchestra and the Detroit Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Jo’s “concert circuit” – playing for the residents of the Prentis Jewish Apartments in Oak Park and at Trowbridge in Southfield – started as a Mitzvah Project, then blossomed when she joined forces with Nathalie, whom she met at a music competition. Over the past year, they have performed at the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Care Program at JVS in Southfield, Sunrise Apartments in Farmington Hills, in the lobby of Beaumont Health in Royal Oak and at Bortz Health Care on Green Lake, a residential nursing facility in West Bloomfield.
“It’s really an easy gig to get,” quips Jo. “But seriously, music is such a big part of my life, and it fulfills me. I especially enjoy playing for the elderly in nursing homes. It makes them happy, and it makes me happy. And it’s always a pleasure – and a great opportunity – to perform with Ms. Conrad.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Nathalie agrees.
Music as therapy
Choosing their music with care, from Ode to Joy to showstoppers from Fiddler on the Roof, Jo and Nathalie have played together for nearly two years. The experience not only has developed Jo’s skills as a performer, it has sparked her interest in pursuing music therapy as a career.
“I’ve been inspired by an organization called Music and Memory – the work of Dan Cohen. What he does is similar to what we do, giving live music concerts in nursing homes,” explains Jo. “There’s a documentary called Alive Inside that describes his project to implement the use of iPods in nursing homes to provide constant music to residents. Music is especially helpful for bringing back happy memories, especially to people with dementia. Even people who can’t remember from one hour to the next, can remember lyrics to songs – every word.”
Working with Julie Verriest, Manager, Site Supervisor of the Brown Program at JVS, Jo recently helped to get MP3 players into the hands of Brown Program participants by creating music playlists for them. “I hope to help expand that program and to see more nursing homes adopt Music and Memory as a means to brighten the days and improve the lives of their residents,” says Jo.
“What a pleasure it has been to work with Jo,” says Julie. “Music is crucial to our programming, and both Jo’s performances and her work on our MP3 project have truly enriched the experience of our participants. She has such vision and passion for improving people’s lives through music.”
“Music is such a universal language,” observes Peter Ostrow, who recently retired from his role as Director of the Brown Program. “More than anything else, it helps people get in touch with who they were and to connect with others. It lifts their moods, does so many things that enrich their lives. And young people, in general, light a spark in our older adults with memory loss because they love to see the next generation coming along — doing enriching things. And because so many of our older adults today don’t have their grandchildren around, it’s precious time for them to have young people visit. So we treasure every opportunity that we have for them to come and play. By sharing whatever musical talent they have, they are doing a mitzvah.”
About the Brown Program
The Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Care Program assists older adults from the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders. The program helps participants remain able, active and alert while supporting family members through a partnership in caregiving. The program has two sites. Contact the Jewish Senior Life site in West Bloomfield at (248) 592-5032 and the JVS site in Southfield at (248) 233-4000.
Do you know an amazing teen working – and playing- to build community in Jewish Detroit? To share the story with myJewishDetroit, email Vivian Henoch, Henoch@jfmd.org.