Like a wilting flower that has just been watered, Irwin Rosenstein sits at the piano and comes to life. In front of the keyboard, there is no sign that the retired Los Angeles attorney has had dementia for three years and Parkinson’s disease for nine. All anybody notices is the music, as he launches into “You Are My Sunshine,” then “Fly Me to the Moon” with three other band members who also suffer from memory loss or Parkinson’s.
For the past year, Irwin, 79, has practiced and performed regularly with Music Mends Minds’ 5th Dementia Band, a group started by his wife, Carol Rosenstein, 70, a retired holistic health care worker who was inspired by her husband’s piano playing on days when he hadn’t yet taken his medication.
“On the evenings when his dosage wasn’t taken, I noticed that he functioned at the piano as though he’d taken it,” she tells PEOPLE. “When I asked the doctor about it, he said, ‘It’s the music. You’re looking at Irwin’s brain using natural dopamine – as if he’d taken a dose of medication.'”
After she watched her husband enjoy picking out tunes on a piano at a UCLA respite care program, “a light bulb went off,” says Carol. “I thought, ‘That’s it! I know exactly what we need to do. Irwin and I are going to start a band.’ ”
Fourteen months later, the Rosensteins’ therapeutic Music Mends Minds, a nonprofit project pairing instrument-playing seniors with teen musicians and singers, is a growing success, with three other band groups soon to be launched in California and Texas.
“The opportunity for seniors with memory loss to play music and feel whole again is a gift,” says Carol, who grew up playing the piano in South Africa.
“We’re finding that the music experience is stored in some kind of sacred vault in their brains that is immune to the noxious environment that kills all cells,” she says. “When our band members get into a music studio and bring out their instruments, it’s like they’re unlocking that vault. Their music memory snaps back. It might be the only thing left that they can do well.”
Medical experts say they have seen significant improvement in patients who have participated in Rosenstein’s program.
“The pills we give can only do so much,” Dr. Jeff Bronstein, a professor of neurology at UCLA, tells PEOPLE. “Music Mends Minds can fill some of these gaps. The physical aspects of playing an instrument and the repetition can improve dexterity and mental agility but the social aspects are equally important. Music Mends Minds brings people together with a like mind to live life fully despite their medical disorders.”
Twice a week, 5th Dementia Band members get together to practice and learn new songs with music students from Los Angeles’ Windward High School, who volunteer to perform with the group.
“Music is something that brings people together – it’s meant to be shared,” says Spencer Lemann, 15, the group’s student advisor. “It’s been mind-blowing to watch how the musicians grow back pieces of themselves when they play music. Through music, we communicate with them on a deeper level than talking with them could ever achieve. The more we play, the more their old selves return.”
Leslie Mayo, whose husband, Sam Mayo, 83, a former history professor, has dementia that has robbed him of his speech, says that playing the harmonica in the 5th Dementia Band has given Sam a sense of accomplishment.
“I think Sam would say that the band has given him some self-esteem and purpose during a time when the disease has eaten away at all of his other abilities,” she tells PEOPLE. “And for me, I’d say it’s improved his quality of life. When you don’t have your mind, you have little that can entertain you. I’m so thankful that Sam is musically inclined and can now call on that ability to bring some pleasure.”
Although most of the band members can’t read music, they all play by ear, with a motto that “there are no wrong notes,” says Gene Sterling, 68, the drummer and band leader, who has Parkinson’s disease but rarely shows a sign of his usual tremor when he gets a beat going.
“Our ensemble isn’t under the gun of judgments and conventional criticisms,” the retired professional musician tells PEOPLE. “What radiates on the faces of the band and the audience is a sense of this moment of contentment that has nothing to do with suffering and all about the rewards of taking the risk to show up. They’ve paid their dues and now have a free lifetime membership to the sanctuary of the heart.”
Carol, who now dreams of taking Music Mends Minds nationwide, says that nothing brings her greater joy than watching her husband and other band members get caught up in their music, following the group’s motto, “Restoring the Rhythm of Life.”
“There is nothing else in their worlds that they can still do – they’ve been robbed of who they are and what they were,” she tells PEOPLE. “But in the midst of music-making as a group, they are whole again and dignified and everyone joins in their happiness. The music has always been there, in their minds. How wonderful that they can summon it again.”