Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley music therapy participants eat popcorn and chat before a recent session at the Linger, Laugh and Learn Center in downtown Fargo. Contributed photo / Lonna Whiting
Luau music plays softly in the background as Certified Music Therapist Deb McTaggart hands out rainbow-colored leis to a crowd of people seated in the community room at Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley in downtown Fargo.
“Today, we’re going to Hawaii,” she said. “How many of you have been to Hawaii?”
Almost all of the dozen or so participants’ hands go up.
“And what did you love about Hawaii?” McTaggart asked.
“The beaches,” one woman said.
“The sunsets,” another person said.
Out of nowhere someone blurts out, “Hulas!”
McTaggart pulls a ukulele out of her magical bag of instruments. “It’s actually pronounced ‘oook-uh-lay-lee.’ ” She switches the music over to Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and suddenly everyone is singing along, word for word by heart.
Just as suddenly, nobody in the room is grappling with a terrible disease. Nobody is worried about forgetting a word or getting confused. Nobody is grappling with the changes that come with taking on a caregiver role.
They’re just singing. They’re simply in the moment. They’re incredibly happy.
Local artist Nicole Gaigner, fourth from left, leads a pickle painting class at a Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley art event in May of 2022. Contributed photo/Memory Care RRV
“When music is present, it creates a special place for joy, love, laughter and connection,” McTaggart said after she ended the hour-long session with alohas and hugs from participants.
WATCH: Deb McTaggart hand out leis and welcome music therapy participants to a recent session at Memory Cafe of Red River Valley
McTaggart and a handful of local artists have been working with Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley to bring those living with a dementia and their care partners a place to go that includes meaningful arts-focused activities that spark participants’ abilities, not disabilities, by enabling what someone with a dementia can do, rather than what they cannot do.
Their work is making an enormous difference.
Music Therapist Deb McTaggart warms up the crowd during a recent music session at Memory Cafe of the Red River Valley. Art classes have become a core offering at the community center, which serves people living with a dementia and their care partners. Contributed photo/The Arts Partnership
McTaggart, who’s worked with people experiencing memory loss for more than 40 years, received her music therapy degree at Augsburg College in Minnesota.
“Music therapy is a clinical, research-based discipline,” she said. “Research studies on music and the brain have shown that music is processed in multiple areas of the brain, and music has the power to change how we feel, how we see the world around us, and how we relate to one another.”
WATCH: Memory Cafe participants sing a Hawaiian-themed song
Trained and board-certified music therapists serve people of all ages in all walks of life. For people living with memory loss or dementia, music is a unique way for them to connect with the people around them, to experience joy in something that has been an important part of their lives and also to provide comfort and respite when needed.
“I’ve seen the power of music reach and move people when all else fails,” McTaggart said.
In similar ways, local visual artist Tia Permenter said her volunteer work at Memory Cafe has proven to her the power of putting paintbrush to paper.
A graduate of NDSU visual arts with an emphasis in painting, volunteering in the community is as much a part of her artistic practice as anything else.
“Part of my personal philosophy is finding ways to interact with people through art and making it accessible to them,” she said.
Knowing people living with neurodegenerative diseases deserve as much accessibility to the arts as anyone else, Permenter started teaching painting classes at Memory Cafe in 2022, a responsibility that grounds her in her purpose.
“When I volunteer at Memory Cafe, it becomes a lovely layered experience because it’s useful and therapeutic. It grounds everyone back to life here, even if their mind is clouded, but they get to use their hands in a very meditative way,” she said.
Like McTaggart’s music therapy, Permenter believes creativity and being able to express that creativity is important for everybody. She notices that people who attend her sessions have a chance to speak and interact in a way that isn’t focused on how they’re interacting. Rather, they’re able to speak freely without worrying about their disease.
“The process in and of itself has a connective quality where you’re focused on what you’re doing, but you’re in this state with the people in the room and it’s much easier to talk and be at ease with,” she said.
Permenter uses tactile textures, papers, paintbrushes, inks, paints and watercolors in her sessions, all materials participants may not have used since their childhood days but almost always pick back up as if they used them just the other day.
“They immediately go back to, ‘OK, I’m creating something here.’ And it anchors them into what they’re doing. It just goes to show we never lose that desire to create and cut things and put them together. It’s beautiful,” she said.
Aside from music and painting, Memory Cafe hosts wood burning sessions each month, which are led by husband-and-wife duo Jerry and Janine Stene, and they always welcome artists reaching out when they’re interested in volunteering.
The Arts Partnership partner artists such as Emily Brooks and Nicole Gaigner also contribute to art-related events at Memory Cafe.
Memory Cafe Executive Director and co-founder Deb Kaul said she is always humbled by the way couples and families come together in “joy, laughter and camaraderie” whenever there’s an art event at the center.
“They seem to lose themselves as they participate in an art session,” Kaul said. “Science shows that the areas of the brain responsible for developing and maintaining an appreciation for art and music are often spared in people living with a dementia. Sometimes, those connections are even strengthened.”
About Memory Cafe: building an inclusive and accepting community
Memory Café is a free social gathering located in the Fargo Moorhead area where people experiencing mild to moderate memory loss and their care partners come together in a safe, supportive and welcoming environment.
There are many independently run memory cafes across the United States. The Fargo center was co-founded by Kaul and Beth Ustenko in 2017 and has since grown into one of the nation’s most active memory cafe organizations.
The cafe offers a robust schedule of events, all centered around creating access, support and inclusivity to dementia families. It’s important work, considering North Dakota has some of the country’s highest rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia per capita. About 16,000 North Dakotans age 65 and older have a dementia, and another 22,000 are caregivers to those affected. Add that up, and it totals 38,000, or roughly the population of the city of West Fargo.
“Redefining memory loss. That is what we do here at Memory Cafe,” Kaul said. “We see such a need in our community, and that continues to grow every day.”
Read more: Mary and Bob Schmidt find friendship at Memory Cafe
About the author
Lonna Whiting is a freelance writer and owner of lonna.co, a content marketing and communications agency located in Fargo, North Dakota. She is a frequent contributor to The Arts Partnership’s content library and also provides strategic communications consultation to the organization.