The Mind&Melody team conducted virtual sessions during the pandemic to keep elderly patients with Alzheimer's and dementia on a regular schedule.
Miami-based Mind&Melody uses music to lift seniors' spirits
Cristina Rodriguez, 29
Founder/CEO Mind&Melody, Miami
Cristina Rodriguez moved with her family from Caracas, Venezuela, to Miami at age 7 and has been playing the cello since she was 10. In her freshman year of high school, she noticed that many kids in her advanced classes also played an instrument and wondered if there was something to that. She began reading about music and the brain, and one book, Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, helped chart her life course.
Through her readings, Rodriguez learned how music affected those experiencing memory loss, including from Parkinson’s and traumatic brain injury. “I thought it was the most magical thing how music was able to give people their life back or bring things out that seemed to have been lost forever.”
Seeds of a Business
While in high school, Rodriguez — who wanted to be a doctor — volunteered at hospitals and neuroscience labs. Once she graduated, she enrolled in Florida Atlantic University’s Honors College, where the pre-med student studied biochemistry. It’s where she quickly became known as “the girl always talking about music and the brain and trying to do experiments with mice and music.”
At FAU, Rodriguez met Lauren Koff, who would become her co-founder in their non-profit, Mind&Melody.
Mind&Melody uses music to help seniors and others engage and regain their spirit while giving young musicians a sense of purpose. The non-profit also helps children and young adults with disabilities find their strengths, gain confidence and build friendships through music.
At the FAU Memory and Wellness Center, they began to study ways to reach and help the elderly through one-hour musical sessions. “That’s where we developed what works and doesn’t work. We just don’t go into a session and play songs for an hour. We design musical activities for throughout the session,” Rodriguez says.
That could be learning the motions of a conductor, clapping a rhythm, shaking a tambourine, or for her Miami Cuban clients, taking a turn strumming a “cigar box guitar.” “We train our musicians to use their musical gift to engage seniors with cognitive impairments and design activities appropriate for their functioning level.”
Children, some on the autism spectrum, learn how to play an instrument and perform — and can really come out of their shells, Rodriguez says. Seniors, she says, can go from being head down and despondent to smiling and singing.
Music activates all parts of the brain — oxytocin and neurotransmitter levels go up, and we feel good, Rodriguez explains. “Music helps reduce anxiety, agitation and can motivate people to move. We’ve seen how people with Parkinson's, when moving to the music, can almost look like they don't have any motor impairment. I really think it's the best brain workout out there.”
The pandemic almost stopped the music. The majority of the nonprofit’s revenue came from long-term care facilities, which were locked down. Mind&Melody began conducting virtual sessions out of necessity — particularly challenging when many of their clients were elderly and suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s.
The team tried several ways to keep the sessions going — from iPads wheeled into individual rooms to small socially distanced sessions with the musicians on a large screen. The later model worked well with some residents, particularly seniors with mild or no dementia.
Going virtual helped keep snowbird seniors who headed back north stay connected and helped Mind&Melody expand its impact nationwide. Rodriguez says some of their other aging-in-place clients are still opting for the virtual experience because they can include family members from afar.
Rosita, who has a mild cognitive impairment and suffers from depression, is a regular Mind&Melody at-home client. During the pandemic, she began opting for virtual sessions — and her adult son in California joins in, experiencing her lighting up when hearing her favorite Cuban love song and talking with the Mind&Melogy musicians about the song’s story. He’s learning to communicate with his mother in a new way.
Rodriguez and Koff started the organization with $300 in the bank and an all-volunteer team.
They landed their first large contract with a hospital. Word then spread through the South Florida community. They hired musician contractors and generated revenue to sustain their non-profit through their fee-for-service model, as well as grants.
Today, Mind&Melody works with more than 60 long-term care communities, day centers and organizations and serves more than 1,000 individuals annually. In 2017, Mind&Melody was doing about 800 music sessions per year; now it’s 2,000 per year and growing.
Last year, Mind&Melody expanded beyond its South Florida territory — Miami through the Treasure Coast. The non-profit now works with seven facilities serving 100 seniors in Tallahassee and recently launched a grant-funded program in New Mexico.
The non-profit also recently received a grant from the Parkinson's Foundation to start a free Music & Movement program in Miami and Boca Raton in partnership with the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine Movement Disorders Division, a Parkinson's Foundation Center of Excellence, and the Marcus Neuroscience Institute in Palm Beach. Over the next year, Rodriguez plans to grow the online music program for seniors aging in place nationally and expand in-person programs in Florida and New Mexico.