Music helps seniors tune into memory

Foresthill woman’s program encourages reminiscing
By: Michelle Miller, Journal News Editor
-A +A
ROSEVILLE ” Before the music starts, the residents at Somerford Place are quiet, some of them doze off a little. But once the sounds of Frank Sinatra start filling the room, the residents are tapping their legs, singing, dancing and waving their fingers in the air. That's just the magic of music ” a phrase that's become a sort of slogan for 62-year-old Barbara Jacobs of Foresthill. Jacobs has been bringing music into the lives of memory-impaired seniors for more than 10 years and seeing the radical effect a jaunty tune can have on their quality of life. This is something so natural to me, like reading, Jacobs said. I've seen the magic music does for seniors. Jacobs has been involved with music since age 3, when she upstaged her older sister with her piano skills. She studied at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City (better known as the high school that inspired the movie Fame). She went on to spend 30 years as a vocational counselor. Once her aging mother moved to California, Jacobs found herself visiting her mother's assisted living facility and rediscovering her love for music ” with a new twist. I would visit (my mother) every day and play the piano. Pretty soon, when I'd play a crowd of 10 or 15 people would come and try to sing along with us and enjoy the music, she said. So I counseled myself out of counseling and into working with music and seniors for the rest of my life. In 1995 she started volunteering around Marin County in adult day programs. The College of Marin Emeritus program hired her to bring music to older adults. During that time, she developed her program, which includes reminiscing, music and sing-along elements. Jacobs has also produced a series of sing-along videos for at-home caregivers who would like to implement her program. On a recent Friday, Jacobs visited Somerford Place, an assisted living facility for Alzheimer's residents in Roseville. During the first 15 minutes, Jacobs tries to evoke memories about musicians from yesteryear. That day's topic was Ol' Blue Eyes ” Frank Sinatra. Jacobs talked about Sinatra's life, making sure to let the residents chime in. His second wife was famous, her name was Ava” Gardner! the room responds. Jacobs brings up the Sinatra standard, It Was a Very Good Year. What year would you go back to? she asked the group. Exercises like this are called reminiscing. They help people with Alzheimer's disease recall the long-term memories that are still strong. On the boom box, someone cues up Strangers in the Night. Jacobs encourages everyone to get up and dance ” including 84-year-old Lou Evon. Lou is remarkable. He's usually sleeping when I come in to class, Jacobs said. He's in mid-stage Alzheimer's, but you wouldn't know it when you see us dancing. Next, Jacobs gives the residents a chance to sing. Now that we've heard Frank Sinatra sing, we're going to sing better than Frank, she said to the residents, passing out the books. Jacobs plays the piano, turning over her left shoulder and singing along with the seniors as their voices glide over the verses of Danny Boy. For Alzheimer's, the long-term memory is there, she said. You can remember the words to the songs when you don't know the name of your child. Music works because it's tied into those long-term memories and the songs from one's youth, Jacobs said. Jacobs has been a popular visitor to Somerford Place twice a month for around six months now. Somerford uses challenging activities, social stimulation and physical exercise to help keep Alzheimer's residents functioning at a higher level for longer, said Kimberlee Keeler-Alsup, community outreach coordinator with Somerford Place. It makes them more alert, it lessens their anxiety. Frustration levels are down. They're more engaged, she said. All this in combination raises their quality of life. Keeler-Alsup said Jacobs' program has played a vital role in helping residents live with Alzheimer's. One thing Barbara does is pull out the memories of music every individual has, she said. She helps them remember things that are dear to them. The Journal's Michelle Miller can be reached at, or post a comment at