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Ukulele and Yoga Combine in Holistic Program for Dementia Patients

Angie Pizzeck, the "Ukulele Yoga Lady," developed a holistic program combining ukulele music, singing and yoga stretching, breath work and meditation.
Angie Pizzeck, the "Ukulele Yoga Lady," developed a holistic program combining ukulele music, singing and yoga stretching, breath work and meditation. She offers the program to many Richmond-area facilities serving Alzheimer's and dementia patients. Courtesy Angie Pizzeck

A Virginia resident has created a new way of helping people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “Uke and Yoga” combines music and movement and is offered at more than two dozen facilities in Richmond. In 88.9 WCVE’s series on Alzheimer’s and Caregiving, Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more.

Learn More: Find information about Uke and Yoga and follow Angie Pizzeck's work on Facebook.

Transcript:

Angie Pizzeck: How are you this morning? It’s so good to see you.

At the Memory Center of Richmond, Angie Pizzeck greets residents, whose faces light up when they see her.

Pizzeck: Would you like to join us for music and yoga?

The residents likely don’t recall Pizzeck’s name; they’re in various stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. But they do know the joy she brings when she comes to teach “Uke and Yoga.”

Pizzeck: I’m going to play some songs I hope you’re familiar with and I invite you to share your voice and sing along...

In the Memory Center’s theater, Pizzeck sits in front of a dozen residents and a handful of staff. As the musician and singer strums her purple concert ukulele, residents join in. Some sing along, others tap their feet, some do both. Pizzeck chooses songs that were popular when the residents where young adults, tapping into happy moments of the past.

(Music: You Are My Sunshine) 

Pizzeck: Music is the last part of what a person with dementia loses, music appreciation is the last part of what a person with dementia loses and it can do many things for them. When they’re singing with a group of people, it can help feel part of community, it can bring back memories of times that were very fond for them that brings them comfort in their day.

After a few songs, Pizzeck transitions to seated yoga.

Pizzeck: So I’m not just a musician, I’m a yoga instructor...

She shares a little background on yoga first, that it’s a practice of movement, breathing and meditation to bring together the mind, body and spirit.

Pizzeck: Sit up as tall as you can comfortably in your seat, have your feet flat on the floor, your hands in your lap. Everybody take a deep breath in and ahhhh.

Pizzeck used to be a paralegal. Visiting her grandmother, who also has dementia, sparked the idea for Uke and Yoga.

Pizzeck: It all started very organically out of love. Even before she was diagnosed with dementia was not necessarily the most pleasant person all the time so when dementia became a part of her everyday life, it was pretty difficult to be able to be with her

At her grandmother’s bedside, Pizzeck started guiding her through gentle movements and stretches. When she was learning ukulele, she’d bring it along and they’d sing. And her grandmother started to change.

Pizzeck: I started to notice that when I would sing to her or when I would sit by her bed and hold her hand and talk about breathing, that there was a noticeable difference in her disposition.

Pizzeck knew she was on to something. She asked the facility if she could try a group session. She observed what songs and words provoked positive responses and which ones didn’t. She read lots of books on dementia and music, dementia and yoga, yoga and physical healing. In just a couple years, the classes have spread to more than 25 care facilities in Richmond, including one that serves brain injury patients.

Pizzeck: I look at all of the people that I serve and I see them all as my family and I think that all comes through and might makes me different from somebody else who might come in. i’m coming with love I'm not afraid to talk to any of the friends that I serve. They greet me with as warm of a welcome as I greet them, I get hugs, sometimes I get kisses on the cheek and grandmother pats. Sometimes I feel I get more out of it than I give to them, and it’s truly a blessing to get to do this.

(Yoga Class: Om. Pizzeck: Inhale. Yoga Class: Om…)

The Memory Center’s Bethanne Elamghari says they’ve observed a positive impact on residents, who she calls friends. It’s helped lesson “sundowning,” a term for confusion and anxiety dementia patients experience as the day wears on.

Bethanne Elamghari: On days Angie comes and we do the breath work and we do Uke and Yoga,  I have noticed in some of my friends a decrease in their symptoms. So what’s she’s doing is working.

Elamghari and Pizzeck started something new - a ukulele jam band with the Memory Center’s residents. The set list includes "Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “This Little Light of Mine.” They might not hit the right notes, but that doesn’t matter. They’re contributing and connecting.

Elamghari: It’s just wow. When you see Angie and what she does, it’s so calm yet it checks all boxes for what you want for your friends, the breath work and the engagement. Even with the Uke Jam Band, you’re instilling that engagement, that sense of purpose, the involvement and the fellowship and we’re all working together as one one unit to create this music. It’s really a wow factor.

(Music: This Little Light of Mine)

Pizzeck: I feel the part that yoga fits into is the breath work. We breathe when we sing and we’re not necessarily aware of the breath… but it’s causing the body to work and it’s making the body time when it breathes in and how it breathes out, it helps to increase the lung function. I feel like there’s so much benefit looking at it from a yoga standpoint and bringing the music in with it, it’s a way I can bring the yoga in without it being actually yoga, in the sense of it being called yoga, but it is a form of a practice with the music with it as well.

(Music: Ukuele Lady)

Elamghari says the sessions have also sparked residents to recall and share memories. In another facility, a staff member noticed that non-verbal residents who didn’t seem active during the class, would do the breathing exercises in the evening on their own. Pizzeck has observed residents learning the words to a song she loves to play: “Ukulele Lady.”

Pizzeck: It’s so neat to know that we may not see what’s happening when we’re in a session and we may not see what’s happening at all. Then all of a sudden the person begins to open their eyes.

Pizzeck is looking into having research done on the impacts of the Uke and Yoga sessions on dementia patients. With evidence of the benefits, she hopes it will spread to more facilities in the Commonwealth and beyond. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.