It was sadness that helped 14-year-old Alexis Kusy form a musical group that brings joy to lives of both young and old.
Alexis always thought of her grandmother as the keeper of the family’s traditions. She was the one who was most excited about family “bake days” before Christmas. She was the one who really loved singing carols. But when Alexis was in seventh grade, her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and her enjoyment of family traditions began to wane. She lost interest in cooking; she threw away the recipe for Alexis’s favorite Christmas cookies. A year later, unable to talk intelligibly or take care of herself, she entered a nursing home.
Alexis visited her, of course, from her home in Franklin Lakes, N.J., (pop. 10,422), but she’d come back sad and disappointed that she and her grandmother could no longer communicate. One day, out of frustration, she sat down and played the nursing home’s piano to help pass the time. Much to her surprise, Alexis says, her grandmother came alive. Laughing and dancing around the piano, she was even able to sing along with the Broadway tunes and Christmas carols Alexis played for her.
“Her favorite was Dancing Around the Christmas Tree,” recalls Kusy, now 17 and a senior at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, N.J.
Alexis has been enrolled in the Yamaha Music Center since she was 3 years old, and music is one of the most important things in her life—so she was thrilled it gave her a way to communicate with her grandmother. When other Alzheimer patients at the nursing home began to gather around the piano, her delight grew greater.
“They loved it when I played Jingle Bells,” she says. “They jiggled their walkers and shook their keys.”
And then they began to sing along with whatever she played.
Alexis had discovered what psychological studies have shown—that music can reach people who have cognitive disabilities. Stroke patients who are unable to speak, for example, can sometimes sing the lyrics to familiar songs.
She was so happy her music had allowed her to connect with her grandmother and the other patients that she decided she would ask students at her school to join her for a Christmas performance at the nursing home. She called the impromptu chorus JOY—an acronym for Joining Old and Young.
Since JOY’s initial appearance in 1999, the group has performed for more than 1,000 residents in 18 nursing homes, and they also make house calls, taking their music to people who are too ill to leave home.
When patients’ families told Alexis they wanted to give donations to JOY to thank them for all they were doing for their loved ones, she determined the money should go to a charity that could put it to good use. She chose Operation Smile, a nonprofit medical services organization that provides reconstructive surgery for facial deformities to children and young adults who can’t afford it, both in the United States and in many foreign countries.
Next year Alexis plans to attend Harvard or Yale—she hasn’t decided yet—so she’s recruiting younger students to JOY, to make sure the group will continue.
“Playing at nursing homes and fundraising for Operation Smile are all part of the same thing,” she says. “They’re part of the circle of life, in which young contribute to old, and old contribute to young.”