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Utah Symphony and Utah Opera bring music to Alzheimer’s patients

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SALT LAKE CITY — Music is powerful. For people who have Alzheimer’s disease, it can bring back memories and make them feel alive.

Utah Symphony and Utah Opera musicians regularly perform in Abravanel Hall and the Capitol Theatre, but this month they're taking their music on the road to help raise awareness of Alzheimer's.

Musicians from the groups are volunteering their time and talents by performing at 10 assisted living facilities along the Wasatch Front. May is Making Sense of Alzheimer's Month, and the members of the orchestra understand what music can do for people who struggle with the disease.

While some people have difficulty having a conversation, listening to music can awaken memories, said Jill Driesel, memory care program director at Emeritus Assisted Living in Salt Lake City, one of the stops on the group’s tour.

“If you play songs from their childhood or from when they were young, they can get engaged and sing the songs, and it turns into a wonderful moment for them,” Driesel said.

A small quartet played for a dozen or so audience members at Emeritus Assisted Living, and it struck a chord with those who attended.

"Well, I'm not an expert on music, but I love it," resident Hulda Parker Young said.

USUO musicians were the first in the country to create such a program four years ago.

"People with Alzheimer's may not recall that they've been to a concert, but during the concert itself, they can have a fabulous musical experience as anybody," said Paula Fowler, education and community outreach director for USUO.

For the musicians, it's more than just giving back to the community. Joel Gibbs, a violist with the group, said the performances and audience members hit close to home.

"One of my grandmothers has a little bit of dementia, a little bit of memory loss," Gibbs said. "So, yes, I definitely see my parents and my grandparents in the faces of the people we're playing for."

In many cases, residents of senior care facilities have an affinity for symphony, operas and other musical performances but don't have the opportunity to attend showings regularly.

"Many of the residents have gone to the opera and gone to the symphony, and that was part of their life," Driesel said, "so this is really exciting for them and it makes them feel part of the community."

USUO is offering free or discounted tickets for caregivers and families if they are able to bring Alzheimer's patients to Abravanel Hall or the Capitol Theatre for a performance in May. Tickets can be reserved by calling 801-869-9046 or visiting the Abravanel Hall Ticket office.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

Email: cmikita@deseretnews.com