By ALISON BURMEISTER
In Tennessee William’s play “The Glass Menagerie, the son says “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory everything seems to happen to music.”
For many people suffering with dementia and the onset of Alzheimer’s music seems to be the key to memory.
Palisadian Rudy Hornish is an active volunteer for Music Mends Minds, a nonprofit organization that creates musical support groups for individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, PTSD and other neurological disorders.
Hornish has witnessed first-hand the magical connection of memory and music. “Do gooder, is not my middle name,” said Hornish, who is a retired New York and Los Angeles based actor (Ordinary People and Down Periscope), and worked as a producer for 11 years at Paramount Studios on Fired Up and Girlfriends.
Before joining Music Mends Minds (MMM), he thought of volunteering as “more like, something to do.” Now, it’s an important part of his life.
Hornish first visited the group, MMM, at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church with his wife, Nancy who was diagnosed with dementia in 2000.
She is not alone, as cases continued to increase in the United States. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that in 2020 5.8 million Americans aged 65 years and older were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2020.
There is no cure. At the suggestion of Nancy’s doctors at UCLA’s memory unit where she was going for weekly exercise therapy, the couple went to a Music Mends Minds group meeting.
There the Hornish’s met, Carol Rosenstein, who is Executive Director and Co-Founder of MMM. She had started the nonprofit after caring for her own husband, Irwin, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2006.
“He developed dementia, and slowly everything changed.” Rosenstein said. “He was a brilliant lawyer, lover of Broadway musicals, and a world traveler.”
As the disease progressed, Rosenstein said the sparkle in her husband’s eyes turned into a blank stare.
Then, in 2014, something happened. Her husband Irwin, who had been a gifted pianist since childhood, sat down at the piano and began to play. As he played American classics like Fly Me to the Moon, she saw his posture straighten: the sparkle returned to his eyes. The husband she once knew came back, bit by bit, if only briefly.
“I could see this human being resurrected and start to reconnect with his environment,” she said, “just like I had given him a dose of medication.
“Science clearly shows that music is medicine for the mind,” Rosenstein said. “During the act of music making, many cells in our brains are stimulated to release neurotransmitters (feel good chemicals) into the bloodstream. This is the principle upon which MMM, gathers seniors to enjoy singing and making music together, which brings the gift of joy and increased brain function.”
Prior to Nancy Hornish’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she and Rudy had led an active life, living in New York City, California and a four-years in San Miguel Allende.
“When we came back from Mexico to be closer to our grandkids, we first moved to Woodland Hills.” Hornish said. But the couple realized they preferred the cooler temperatures of the Westside. When a realtor showed them a Pacific Palisades home with an ocean view, they moved here.
A little over three years ago, Nancy had a stroke and eventually passed away. Grief stricken at the loss of his beloved wife, Hornish found himself alone and depressed.
Carol Rosenstein reached out to him and invited him back to Music Mends Minds for a drum circle. With nothing to lose and a true love for music, he accepted.
Rudy, who began playing piano at age 7, said music has been a constant in his life. He started a dance band/combo in high school and played in college at Notre Dame, where he graduated in 1959.
He continued to attend the MMM drum circles, until one day Rosenstein, asked Hornish if he would like to join their band, The Fifth Dementia, as their piano player.
The first rehearsal Hornish recalled being “blown away.” He said, “to see people who are afflicted with dementia and actually perform is a miracle.” Many members of the band have dementia and other memory loss afflictions. (visit: click here)
“Music Transcends memory,” Hornish said. “Music has its own language.”
According to a Foo and Johnson 2017 study (“Music: The Last Thing We Forget”), Musical memories survive even with the onset of dementia because the music memory storage area in the brain is independent from the long-term memory function, and it is also the most resistant to damage from brain shrinkage and lack of glucose.
Rosenstein said, “Seniors with neurodegenerative diseases, are even able to pick up a music instrument they played early in life, dust it off, and get back into the rhythm of life, just like one never forgets how to ride a bike.”
In addition to playing the piano and volunteering for MMM, Rudy Hornish, 85, regularly attends Pilates classes.
He and Nancy had three children: a son who is a Cargo Pilot in Bellingham, Washington, a daughter who is a commercial producer in San Anselmo and a son who is a film editor in South Pasadena.
“Playing for Music Mends Minds and The Fifth Dementia, I feel like I am giving something back,” Hornish said. Now when he’s asked about volunteering, he will tell you, not only will he volunteer his time, but would be “happy” to do so!