Music connects students with seniors who have cognitive decline

L-W Central in New Lenox participates in AliveInside program for the 2nd year

Kalan Kostal’s great-grandmother had dementia and died when Kostal was very young, so she didn’t get to know her well.

But Kostal, 17, a student at Lincoln-Way Central High School in New Lenox, has a clear memory of dancing with her grandmother one Christmas while Kostal’s uncle played the piano.

Perhaps this is one reason why Kostal enjoyed participating in AliveInside, a program that uses music to connect students with seniors who have cognitive decline. This is the second year Lincoln-Way Central has participated in the program.

Chip Staley from Age Guide oversaw the students’ four training sessions and then connected the students with the seniors.

After the students receive training on how to communicate with someone who has dementia, they learn about the particular types of music that impacts their seniors. The seniors then receive an mp3 player with customized playlist Staley creates for them, Staley said.

“This program basically helps students understand what dementia actually is,” Staley said. “And we deal with learning how to have the empathy that is required to interact in a way that will get the participants to talk with them and give them information about their life and give them enough information about their musical tastes.”

The students learn why music is important to these seniors and “how the brain keeps musical memories instact even in the latter stages of the disease,” Staley said.

“Music is the thing that helps them remember who they are.” he added.

Christopher Mroczek, band director at Lincoln-Way Central, said participating students are part of the school’s Tri-M Music Honor Society. The school held an informational meeting this past December where students who previously participated shared their experiences with students interested in becoming involved, Mroczek said.

In pre-COVID years, students would meet with seniors in person, perhaps in nursing homes, Staley said. This year, participating seniors were those liviung at home, so the seniors and their caregivers met with the students over Zoom, he said.

Arwen Rolinitis, 18, said learning key phrases and words, such as “tell me more” and not asking such general questions that the senior could answer with a “yes” or a “no” made conversation easier.

Rolinitis said “her” senior grew up in India. She is not familiar with that type of music, so she asked, “What kind of music did you listen to as a youth?”

When Rolinitis learned he was a “big romantic,” she said to him, “Tell me more about what songs you sang to your wife.”

Kostal said “her” senior grew up in Italy and loved opera music but only played “American music” to her children when she came to the U.S. Joan Baez was one of her favorite artists.

Justin Eckert, 17, said when his senior moved from Europe to New York, she converted from Judaism to Catholicism and “fell in love” with jazz music.

“She liked Frank Sinatra and ‘I Did it May Way’ was her favorite,” Eckert said.

For more information about the AliveInside program, visit aliveinside.org.