Twice a month, you can find Eric Kolb at the memory support center at the Villagio Senior Living facility in Carrollton. He sets up a TV and microphone while he greets residents gathering in the common room. Since he’s a regular visitor, he knows some of them by name.
Kolb is preparing for an hourlong singalong, with classics like “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “You Are My Sunshine” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Residents sing along with the lyrics on the TV screen and even dance with Kolb — especially when “The Hokey Pokey” comes on.
The executive director of nonprofit Songs & Smiles believes music builds connections. And two years into the pandemic, he knows families are struggling — especially those with loved ones in assisted living facilities. Even if it’s just an hour a week of singing, people with memory loss can enjoy time with their loved ones and find joy on their journey with Alzheimer’s.
Kolb launched the organization with his wife after his mother-in-law died from the disease just a few weeks after her 80th birthday. His wife’s grandmother also had the disease and died from it in 2006. Alzheimer’s disease is “a fatal form of dementia” and the sixth leading cause of death for adults in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“After [my mother in law’s] passing we decided to honor her and also to help other people, because we knew we were kind of spared the worst parts of Alzheimer’s care,” he said. “We were still young enough that we had energy left, and we had learned so much through our journey … that we wanted to help other families.”
In February, Songs & Smiles earned a $6,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America that will be used to expand their programming. Singalongs at memory care facilities are just one part of the organization’s work, along with a dementia-friendly magazine and other resources for caregivers.
“Alzheimer’s destroys connections,” Kolb said. “We’re trying to build connections, and music is a powerful way that connects people with memories and connects people with each other.”
Songs & Smiles received its nonprofit status in April 2020. Although the pandemic initially prevented Kolb from doing in-person singalongs, he livestreamed them and created an online library of singalongs for public use.
Kolb wants to develop a format for his performances that will allow other singers to set up their own singalongs in memory facilities. The grant is helping him get closer to that goal.
Kolb chooses to sing songs that are in lower keys, which makes it easier for older ears to hear and older voices to sing. The songs may be decades old, but as Kolb put it during his performance, “a good song lasts forever.”
“It was the end of April last year that I started being able to go sing at memory care facilities again, and since then I’ve done more than 300 shows,” he said,” and we’re really starting to establish a much stronger local presence.”
Tina Mandrell Brown, a memory care coordinator at the Dancing River Assisted Living and Memory Care facility in Grapevine, said she “fell in love” with the Songs & Smiles magazine.
The publication has large type, easy-to-follow designs and doesn’t feature any events after the 1970s. She said the magazine can be used as a group or one-on-one activity because residents can read and write in their own copy.
“I just can’t say enough about it,” Mandrell Brown said. †[It’s] a magazine that I could see other communities would benefit from.”
Mandrell Brown also said Kolb is very “engaging” and “creative” during his weekly singalong visits to the center. “The grant has enabled him to come more, which is fantastic,” she said. “Music is probably one of the No. 1 things that is very beneficial for residents.”
Research suggests that singing is helpful for people with memory loss because it increases the flow of oxygen to the brain. University of Texas at Dallas associate professor Chandramalika Basak — who teaches in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences — said singing is just one of the more accessible alternatives to Alzheimer’s interventions.
Basak said some physical exercises or forms of therapy — such as studying language or taking workout classes — aren’t attainable for everyone.
Terry Kay’s mother, 95-year-old Bonnie Whitlow, who has no formal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s but has a form of dementia, has been at the Villagio for nearly three years. Kay said she grew up with a very musical family, but her mother didn’t seem to enjoy music as much as her other family members. But Whitlow sings along with all of the songs Kolb performs — and she especially enjoys singing the song that includes her first name, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
“They hear songs from when they were growing up, and it brings memories up for them,” Kay said. “He seems so sweet and really wants to do something.”
As Kolb moves forward with expanding the programming of Songs & Smiles, he said the most exciting aspect of earning the AFA grant is that he can bring music to places that can’t afford his services, particularly through community sing-alongs.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 65% of people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia live in their community — not in assisted living. And of that group, 74% live with someone else.
Hosting community singalongs will provide an opportunity for at-home caregivers to enjoy the music, as well, Kolb said. The first community singalong will be at the Vine Arts & Events Center in Grapevine on Sept. 21, which is World Alzheimer’s Day.
“We want a place where a caregiver could come and experience connections [and] moments of joy together, singing with their loved one,” he said.
Kolb said it’s possible to find joy during the journey with Alzheimer’s, even though you’re “losing bits of a loved one.”
“I think people forget that there are so many things Alzheimer’s does not affect,” he said. “It does not affect a person’s ability to feel emotions [or] affect a person’s ability to feel happiness, and joy. So that’s something we can focus on.”