Memory Café: A Virtual Outreach Initiative

On June 25, 2020, Civitas tried something new: a virtual concert for patients with mild-to-moderate dementia designed to study the benefits of live music on memory loss patients and their caretakers. The concert was the result of a collaboration with Dr. Borna Bonakdarpour and his team the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease at Northwestern University. Performances by Civitas members and Chicago Symphony colleagues, Gipsy Way Ensemble, and the Northwestern Medical Orchestra were selected according to clinical music therapy guidelines and streamed directly into the homes of patients and their care givers, followed by a live Q&A with Dr. Bonakdarpour and Civitas violinist Yuan-Qing Yu.

The new initiative was originally set to launch in-person at Symphony Center's Buntrock Hall in downtown Chicago in March. When the COVID-19 crisis made public gatherings and live performances impossible to schedule, the program moved online to best serve its newly homebound audience. Many of the Mesulam Center's patients hold subscriptions to theaters, museums, and concert halls in the Chicago area and reported feeling culturally lost when venues began closing at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Some patients are getting worse faster because of a lack of stimulation," according to Dr. Bonakdarpour. "Isolation is a big risk factor. If they're not stimulated, they decline."

The concert was presented over Zoom to Mesulam Center patients and blended pre-recorded video performances and live speakers. The repertoire choice was guided by music therapy specifications meant to best engage the audience, including parameters like a steady pulse, clear melodies, and a moderate tempo range. Including the Q&A, the entire program lasted about 50 minutes.

Reactions to the concert were overwhelmingly positive. Text messages and emails from caretakers showed photos of patients smiling and clapping along with the music, and survey results showed a general boost in mood and energy level.

“We’ve been doing this for 3 years for patients in nursing homes, and the reaction’s always positive," says Dr. Bonakdarpour. “They wake up to it, they dance, they respond to it very well.”

The results were encouraging to the performers involved, many of whom are still adjusting to the new world of virtual concerts. “It does feel like it makes a difference. It’s important to hear that," Yuan-Qing Yu says. "With virtual concerts, you don’t see the immediate reaction."

"It's a very valuable collaboration," concludes Dr. Bonakdarpour. Although no one is sure when in-person concerts can safely resume, plans for additional and more wide-reaching virtual Memory Café concerts are underway. If you would like to support future outreach concerts, please consider making a donation today. Your generosity will ensure we continue to offer free concerts to people in need!