From Opera Stage to Alzheimer's and Dementia Singer
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
Hello Friends. My name is Nandani Sinha but please call me Nani. I am the founder and Executive Director of Music Heals Minds Los Angeles. Before I tell you about MHM I would love to share with you a bit about the genesis.
I am the daughter of two incredible parents who braved leaving the old world of Europe and Asia to create their family and future in the New World, America. That led to so many pioneering opportunities for them and their family. My father was a Professor of Sociology and one of the smartest people I know. My mother is equally brilliant and pursued her passion in Psychology. We lived in New York and our family grew. I followed my passion for music with a degree in Operatic Performance and traveled the world to sing with opera companies and sing in festivals and concert halls on almost every continent.
I moved to Los Angeles to continue my work in opera and made this beautiful city my home of choice. A short time later my father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and his version of the disease also brought forth Parkinsonian Dementia. This brilliant man who I had looked up to my entire life was fading before my eyes. Every visit home to New York was a surprise in decline of cognitive function and recognition of me as his daughter. This led to the day where I was a stranger to my own father. He was frightened of me and would only find calm and peace in my presence if my mother was also there. My mother was his “person”. The only “person” in the world who he recognized and depended upon solely. My poor mother was exhausted and overwhelmed like all caregivers in this position. Not only was she my father’s everything but she also had to be the bridge between my father and his own beloved children.
My previous visits had been filled with playing games with my father to improve his memory as well as giving him audio copies of the Bhagavad Gita and other literature and music from his childhood in India. We had many conversations about his childhood and also his move to America. Eventually he had a stroke and was hospitalized. This event was a huge turning point in his mental acuity and verbal capacity. He would say to me “I don't know how to say what I mean.” “I went to the hospital and they took my words away.” He would become frustrated that he was not able to communicate his thoughts and feelings and despondent and tired from his efforts. The experience was heartbreaking to witness and brave through for my dad. I left phone conversations and visits depressed and distressed. I mourned the future I would never have with my father; walking me down the aisle, seeing me graduate from a DMA program, meeting my children, and seeing or hearing any of my company debuts in my professional operatic career.
One day while visiting with my dad and running out of conversation because of his difficulty to remember words and events I sat in my parents living room and just started singing along to the songs on the radio. My father loved the radio and had it on at all times when he was awake. I sang along to famous arias sung by operatic legends and suddenly a light flashed on in my father’s eyes and he started singing along, conducting and talking about when he had seen this opera or that singer at the MET or New York City Center. I was stunned. I thought I had lost my father, but he was still there! My dad was still in there. I sobbed with relief and hope. Unfortunately, his cognitive progress did not last long and we were back to his decline, but every time we sang or played music, that he knew, he was animated and active again. The music also bought him a sense of calm and peace that he did not experience unless he was in my mother’s company.
I returned to Los Angeles and my mother would take my father to the MET at the movie concerts and my father would always pick out the mezzo-soprano and tell my mother all about his opera singer daughter and how she sings Carmen. Music was the gift that brought my father back to us. I did some research and consulted Music Therapists friends and found that because music is related to one of the five senses — hearing — that is regulated by the brain. It makes sense to utilize music listening to stimulate cognitive function in the same way that we use physical therapy to regain mobility and physical function in our limbs, muscles, and joints.
I also found that music can also be used for more than just your loved one as a kind of healing. We know that caring for a loved one causes caregivers to experience heightened stress. Because studies have shown that listening to music increases melatonin secretion, a hormone linked to mood control, reduced aggression, depression, and improved sleep. Using music to deal with these frequent caregiver issues might be beneficial.
When I returned to Los Angeles I decided that since I could not be there daily to sing for my dad in person I would commit to volunteering in Enliven Units throughout Los Angeles. Enliven Units are the Memory Care Units in Nursing homes and Senior Residences. I sang with companies such as Songs By Heart, Rancho Los Amigos, City of Hope, Los Angeles Opera Connects and Alzheimer’s Los Angeles. It has been my pleasure to be a part of creating music programs that help people with Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Brain Injury to connect with themselves, the world and their caregivers in a meaningful way again.
My father passed in June of 2015 and even though he passed and I was not able to engage with him musically anymore I had built strong relationships and bonds with Memory Care Communities in Southern California. I decided to honor my father and his legacy of a pioneering spirit by continuing my work and filling a need in this community to have engaging and exciting programs. One of the hallmarks of my programs is that I bring to these communities songs in over 15 languages. I have brought songs to communities in Mandarin, Korean, Russian, Spanish, French, Gaelic, Finnihs, Dutch, English, German, Hawaiian, Latin, Italian, and many more because my career as an opera singer prepared me to learn and have fluency with many languages. It is wonderful to bring music but it is even more special to sing a song to someone in their native tongue that they associate with their childhood. These memories trigger such animation and clarity in cognitive function.
So here we are in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic and all my operatic work has been cancelled. I found that the Memory Care communities I had been singing for were also shut down for safety reasons. So I shifted over to a virtual model privately for them. I also went public with this model weekly with Los Angeles Opera Connect’s “Music to Remember” and monthly with Alzheimer’s Los Angeles “Memory Mornings”, for the Alzheimer’s and Dementia communities at large. I am so proud to be a part of the LA Opera and Alzheimers LA programs and am proud of our efforts in pushing this type of community service work forward and making music a part of the healing journey of Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Traumatic Brain Injury sufferers and their caregivers.
When I was a child my father always told me 'Whatever you do, just make sure it’s your job to leave the world a little bit of a better place than when you entered it.’ So all of these programs are my way of being able to do that.
I look forward to Getting to Know You more and joining you on your journey.