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Native music project aims to help Az tribal members with Alzheimer's disease

Native music project aims to help Az tribal members with Alzheimer's disease

  • courtesy Banner Health

Alzheimer's patients and caregivers in Arizona's tribal communities may find help with living with cognitive issues in a new musical project meant to help sooth emotions and stimulate memories — a CD of recordings by Native American music legend R. Carlos Nakai and others.

"Walk With Me" is a compilation of songs, including those by Nakai, the Grammy-nominated flutist of Navajo and Ute descent. On the album, he's joined by frequent collaborator Cliff Sarde, with other songs performed by Sharon Burch, Aaron White, Kelvin Bizahaloni, and Robert Tree Cody also featured.

Music allows for connections without using words, experts said.

Banner Health's Alzheimer's Institute collaborated with Canyon Records and Sunshine Music Therapy to create the record for Arizona's tribal members living with the type of dementia that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Native Americans have a higher chance of developing Alzheimer's or dementia compared to whites or Asian Americans, according to the Alzheimer's Association. But, Native patients often don't have access to the care and resources they need, and many go undiagnosed.

Music can help people with Alzheimer's disease reminisce, said Heather Mulder and Nicole Lomay, spokeswomen for the Alzheimer's Institute. Lomay, who also leads the institute's Native American Outreach Program, said because music is a key part of Native American traditions, Native patients listening to the CD will be able to remember aspects of their youth. This can also help with soothing emotions and offering behavioral support.

"Music can help with communication," Mulder said. "There comes a time when a lot of words can be too much to understand. So, music gives patients a way to connect without using verbal communication."

The first song is "Winter Camp," one of Nakai's most well-known compositions, which features Grammy-nominated composer and jazz multi-instrumentalist Cliff Sarde on keyboards with  Nakai, who plays Native American flute and eagle bone whistle. Nakai has released over 50 albums in his recording career, has been nominated for Grammy awards 11 times and won an Arizona Governor's Arts Award.

Navajo and German folk singer-songwriter Sharon Burch has had three albums released by Canyon Records. She won the Indie Grammy for Best Native American Recording in 1996. On this CD, she plays acoustic guitar and sings on "We Are Here" along with William Eaton on synth guitar and bass, and Will Clipman on Taos drums and rattle.

Aaron White — who is Ute and Dine — is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who plays guitar on "Road Less Traveled" and Native flute on "I Bring the Moon and the Stars."

Canyon Records, an Arizona label the focuses on Native American artists such as Nakai, hopes the music will increase the quality of life for the patients and their caregivers who receive it, said Kathy Norris-Wilhelm, the company's promotions director.

"In the Native American community, music is an integral part of daily life, traditions, important ceremonies and celebrations," she said.

Norris-Wilhelm experienced what it is like to be a caregiver and loved one of a person living with Alzheimer's. Her wife passed away from early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and Norris-Wilhelm said she witnessed first-hand the benefits people with the disease receive from music.

"[Hearing] is the last portion in your brain to be diminished," Norris-Wilhelm said. "Music is so powerful."

Mulder and Lomay are working on distributing the CD to Arizona's tribal communities, looking to work with groups and organizations such as the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Inc.

"The reason why we didn't release this CD to the general public is because we want to make sure it gets to the people who really need it," Lomay said.

The CD "Walk With Me" has 12 tracks, and it is meant to be utilized as a guide. Caregivers can play the album in order to provide a routine for their patients as well as a moment of care for themselves.

Those interested may contact for more information on how to obtain the CD.

Banner Health, which operates the Alzheimer's Institute, manages the largest network of hospitals in Arizona.

Bianca Morales is’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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