About Songs by Heart

A Note from Our Founder

imageMy name is Nancy Gustafson and my mother had advanced dementia.   

We all understand how dementia and Alzheimer’s can interfere with so many different functions that we all take for granted, including a person’s ability to communicate. To me, this is perhaps the worst aspect of this dreaded disease: when we see our loved one unable to connect with others, unable to carry on a conversation, looking so lost within themselves.

One day in October 2014, when I was visiting my mother in her Memory Care unit in Costa Mesa, CA, I was saddened enormously by how quickly her health declined. She was sitting in a wheelchair, unable to recognize me and unable to join in any type of conversation. She looked so lost … lost within herself, unable to collect or express her thoughts or put two words together. It broke my heart.

So, I decided to try to get her to sing with me. I started playing the piano. The piano was never one of my strong suits - but I tried my hand at some Christmas carols. Mom slowly started singing along … notwithstanding my piano playing. After about 15 minutes of playing, I turned to look at her and she said, "You know that's not very good."

I nearly cried I was so happy. Mom was actually expressing a thought.  And an honest one at that!

We laughed, and I told her that I would choose easier pieces for the piano. We continued singing - in the Key of C! After another few songs, I looked at Mom - singing along with me - and once again she was able to talk, and said, "You're getting better.”

I laughed with her and told her that if we improved enough that she and I could sing in the shopping malls at Christmas time and earn some money. She replied without missing a beat, "Yeah, the Gustafson family singers".

It was at that moment that I knew what I had to do. I didn't want another day to pass where my mother and others like her sat in their rooms disconnected from the world around them, looking so terribly lost, depressed and frightened.

Music has the power to help people with memory loss to connect to each other, the world around them, and to the joy of music. I would create a program that harnesses that power and aims to improve the lives of people, like my mother, every day.

Our Mission

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. The people suffering from this disease are often cut off from the world around them, unsure of who or where they are.

According to studies done in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, ‘when used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function, and coordinate motor movements.’ With this knowledge, we have been able to create a program that uses music to engage residents at a higher level than a standard sing-along.

Since our first programs in three Chicago suburbs in 2015, Songs by Heart has expanded to reach over 40 memory loss communities across the country. Our goal is to use the power of music to improve the quality of life for persons with memory loss in all 50 states -- and beyond!

  • It’s so unbelievable to hear my mother singing lyrics next to me when she can’t even remember what she did an hour ago... Songs by Heart really works!
    Son of a Foster Pavilion Resident
    Westminster Place
  • “It is clear to see what a huge difference Songs by Heart is making with the residents. I never see the residents as happy or as full of life as when you are there singing with them, and it makes me cry to see residents who cannot speak many words trying to sing all lyrics to the songs.”
    Community Volunteer
    Westbridge at Wyndemere
  • ...your program provided an experience like no other.  I witnessed residents who are unable to voice a coherent thought or verbalize a sentence, sing songs in their entirety, word for word. I didn’t want the program to end!
    Director of Memory Care
    North Shore Place
  • My mom loves the program. After the Songs by Heart sing along each day, she is alert, smiling, and energized in a way I have not seen in years.
    Son of an Assisted Living Resident
    The Moorings of Arlington Heights
  • Singing with you all helps to fill a hole in my heart.
    Foster Pavilion Resident
    Westminster Place
  • We are so enthralled with the effects of the program. We are hearing raves from families, residents, and staff!  The melodies linger so sweetly. I’ve watched numerous videos over and over just to see our resident expressions. We captured very special moments and caught surprising resident reactions that buoyed our spirits to do the work we do each day. Thank you!
    Director of Dementia Services
    Senior Resource Group
  • After about a month we noticed our group becoming more "chatty." Even some of our non-verbal residents were singing along and had begun to communicate in words and short phrases. Family members suddenly had a glimpse into what the person was thinking.
    Wife of a Resident
    The Arlington of Naples