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Local performer touches Alzheimers patients through jazz

Thu, 30 Apr 2009 20:25:00
5 / 5 (10 Votes)
Article by:
Nicole Ely
Marline Teich connects with seniors. Photo by Jonathan Rivera.
The Fillmore District is no stranger to jazzy melodies and bluesy beats, but one San Francisco musician is bringing this music to a different audience — Alzheimer’s patients.

Marlina Teich’s nonprofit organization – Jazzheimers – performs at convalescent homes in and around the Western Addition. Through music, Teich said she hopes to entertain and connect with seniors experiencing memory loss and possibly spark a few memories from their pasts.

“They respond to music in such a different way than other people,” Teich said. “It really is the way they communicate best.”

She began performing at convalescent homes as a soloist, strumming her guitar and singing famous tunes from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Not wanting to focus on obscure artists, Teich found that well-known songs from composers like Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin struck a chord with her audience. She also takes request, with “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca topping the list.

And as time went by, Teich began to realize that she needed to expand her act. She added a saxophonist, a pianist, an upright bass player, another guitarist and occasionally a drummer to her Jazzheimers band.

“I found a group of people who are sensitive to the needs of the patients,” she said. “As a band, we have to make sure the patients come first.”

One way Teich makes sure the audience comes first is by encouraging participation. One time, she told her listeners to imagine themselves in a cocktail lounge instead of the cafeteria of a convalescent home. She would tell them that the nurse was really a waitress and that they were all out having a fun night on the town.

Another time while she was performing, Teich noticed one woman staring off into a corner.

“I thought she might be deaf,” Teich remembered. “And so I went up and put the patient’s hand on the guitar so she could feel the vibrations.” By the end of the performance, the woman was smiling.

Jazzheimers performances last about one hour. Teich and her group make the rounds to different senior centers about once every few weeks. And their presence brings excitement.

Bettye Hammond is the Director of Social Services at the Western Addition Senior Center at 1390½ Turk St., where Teich sings every fourth Friday of the month. Hammond says that many people call in a week in advance to ask when Jazzheimers will be performing.

“They’re just terrific,” Hammond said. “We’re really blessed to have them.”

Jazzheimers also visits Coventry Park and Irene Swindells Alzheimer’s Residential Care Center resident facility.

Although Teich founded Jazzheimers three years ago, she’s had a long career in both community organizing and music. Originally from New York City, Teich dreamed of being a professional musician. In the late 1970s, she left New York and came to San Francisco where she encountered the legendary jazz district on Fillmore Street — thus beginning a lifelong romance with that community.

Between then and Jazzheimers, Teich worked as a third and fifth grade teacher, organized community programs for seniors in the outer Mission District and taught music. When working with the elderly, Teich realized how many individuals were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. And so, she decided to focus her performances on these elders in particular.

“I don’t do jazz that’s hard to follow,” she said. “Jazz can allow for a lot of improvisation, but the music is for the patients. So I keep it simple and easy to remember.”

And remember they do. Teich recalled one show where a blind woman with Alzheimer’s was sitting close to her as she performed. She could hear the woman singing every word of each song with perfect timing. Teich soon found out that this woman grew up in Germany during WWII, where her parents owned a record store. For hours on end, this woman used to camp out in store and listen to the music that Teich was now singing.

“Music is an important component of therapy,” said Robert Sarison, director of Activities at Irene Swindells. “It’s the music they enjoyed when they’re memories where intact. Now, even though they may not remember her, they remember the music.”

But Jazzheimers is facing an uncertain future. January marks the end of funding for the nonprofit and Teich is beginning to brainstorm ways to raise money. She’s considering holding a benefit at Yoshi’s or seeking out sponsors. Teich estimates that Jazzheimers will need approximately $10,000 a year to survive.
 “I don’t want to let this go,” Teich said. “These people are lonely and inside themselves, and music opens the doors of communication.”

To make a donation or to learn more about Jazzheimers, visit jazzheimers.org or call (415) 820-1595.

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