The Sunrise Serenaders use music to help Alzheimer’s

and dementia patients feel like themselves again

By Susan Courtright


The residents of the Sunrise Retirement Center in Playa Vista come into the sunny, flower-filled living room in various stages of listlessness, with those lovely but unknowing smiles betraying confusion about where they are and why.

Then, listen: Music!

Suddenly the room is alive with smiles, foot-tapping and clapping along to a quartet of harmonicas.

Though only she can make out the words she is singing, a severely impaired stroke patient sings along to “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”

The Sunrise Serenaders is an all-volunteer harmonica band that performs classic tunes of yesterday for retirement and convalescent home audiences who were young when such songs were new but now see the world through the clouds of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The band visited Sunrise on March 13 and returns each month, while also staging gigs in other facilities throughout Southern California, including the Fireside Convalescent Center in Santa Monica.

“The looks in their faces is like no other,” says Sunrise Serenader Robert Thurm, a retired educator and painter. “When I look out over my harmonica and watch somebody remember the music and just light up, I am thrilled.”

On most mornings, Thurm — himself an octogenarian — leaves his home in Santa Monica Canyon to share his gifts with others.

“It’s the least I can do,” he says. “I’ve played the harmonica all my life it seems, and it’s a privilege to play for others.”

Burt Newton, a retired OB/GYN and member of the street medicine team Doctors Without Walls, was traveling during the Sunrise gig but was up bright and early for a visit to Fireside on April 3.

“When I’m traveling I’m thinking about all the people we play for — the foggy look in their eyes changing back to the bright-eyed and happy young men or women they were when our songs were first played,” says Burt, who, at 79, is ribbed as “the baby” of the band.  “It’s like a miracle, really, what these little harmonicas can do.”

The band also includes Roger Goefche, a retired Hughes Aircraft aerospace engineer, and Margaret Frankel, a retired educational psychologist who had worked in aeronautical engineering for the military as a civilian during World War II. Frankel currently teaches harmonica at the Westchester Senior Center, a short distance from her home. Another member, Jana Franz, is battling ill health but is determined to get back.

What connects these men and women to each other — and to their audiences — is their instrument.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, countless American children mailed in serial box tops and $1 postage to receive ten-note harmonicas, the same “mouth organs” or “pocket pianos” that brought cheer to cowboys driving cattle through lonely plains and soldiers on the battlefields of the Civil War through World War II.

The harmonica’s timelessness also gives it the power to evoke strong memories within its listeners.

Joshua Grill, adjunct professor of neurology and director of clinical trials at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA, says music is a powerful tool for helping those suffering from memory loss to make solid connections to their pasts.

In the March issue of the campus magazine UCLA Today, Grill says anecdotal reports of what happens with patients…who get music therapy are pretty staggering.”

According to Grill, “Patients who haven’t slept through the night in a long time [are now] sleeping through the night … or finishing their meals … or just having a smile on their faces for the first time in a while.”

Both the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America and the Mayo Clinic speak to music reducing anxiety and depression among those with memory-related diseases.

Like the opening scene of “The Nutcracker,” in which sleeping toy soldiers and dolls awaken and begin to interact when the orchestra introduces the refrain, music therapy awakens in those with memory loss a sharper view of the past that connects them to the here and now.

When the music plays, the residents of Sunrise become more cheerful and sociable, staff members say.

“I am paying it forward,” Frankel says. “I hope that there is somebody like me out there if I am ever on the other side of the harmonica.”