Our Ode to You nonprofit offers older adults in memory-care communities free therapeutic music, art programs

Aani Nagaiah, co-founder of Our Ode To You, speaks with Inspira Arrowhead resident Donna White on Jan. 27 in Glendale. (Photo by Sam Ballesteros/Cronkite News)

Residents at Inspira Arrowhead paint during an art activity hosted by Our Ode to You on Jan. 27, 2024, in Glendale. (Photo by Sam Ballesteros/Cronkite News)

Gale Alvar, a resident at Inspira Arrowhead, helps pass out instruments to her table on Jan. 27, 2024, in Glendale. (Photo by Sam Ballesteros/Cronkite News)

Gage Samaddar, co-founder of Our Ode to You, plays the piano for residents at Inspira Arrowhead on Jan. 27, 2024, in Glendale. (Photo by Sam Ballesteros/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Arcadia High School seniors Aani Nagaiah and Gage Samaddar are using their talents to give back to older adults in memory-care communities. Our Ode to You, a nonprofit the duo started last summer, provides free therapeutic art and music programs for older people in assisted living facilities across the Valley.

“Our main mission is to rekindle the creativity in the elderly care facility homes and just make them (the residents) feel empowered again as some of their talents can be shown through art or music,” Nagaiah said.

Samaddar serenades the group with vocals and the piano while Nagaiah engages and paints with them. After they finish their art projects, the pair provides instruments for the residents to use and they create music together.

Music and art both evoke memories for those experiencing memory loss and can be used to reduce stress and symptoms of depression.

Carolyn Siburg, a resident at Inspira Arrowhead, shakes a tambourine during a sing-along activity hosted by Our Ode to You on Jan. 27, 2024, in Glendale. (Photo by Sam Ballesteros/Cronkite News)

“Music is able to access parts of the brain that might have previously been damaged or changed because of cognitive decline. This is because music isn’t located in one central place in the brain,” said Amanda Marcum, a board-certified music therapist who works for Hospice of the Valley.

Cognitive declines and diseases can interfere with verbal communication and language skills – enter music, what Marcum calls the language of the heart. When the brain is suffering from disease, music can transcend communication barriers, she said. Music and art create opportunities to tap into people’s residual abilities and celebrate the creativity that is there.

“The ability to connect through music is such a gift, and so often folks with dementia really struggle to have meaningful connections with others,” Marcum said. “So music can provide a great bridge for that. Regardless of the program or whether it’s being provided by a licensed therapist or not, it can still have a fabulous impact.”

Our Ode to You recently went to the memory-care community at Inspira Arrowhead in Glendale. Elizabeth Peake, the memory care activity coordinator there, said what sets Our Ode to You apart from other programming is the students’ attention to detail. “They’re self-motivated, and they just run with it. I love that! I don’t have to guide them much, and I don’t have to be there supervising. They can just go and do the project,” Peake said.

At Inspira Arrowhead, Samaddar started the program by playing classics by artists including Frank Sinatra, while Nagaiah set out supplies and helped the residents begin a painting project. After the painting was complete, there was a brief snack break before the pair brought out a variety of instruments, including tambourines, bongos and guitars. The residents then joined Samaddar and Nagaiah in playing a few songs.

Donna White, an Inspira Arrowhead resident, paints on a canvas during an Our Ode to You activity on Jan. 27, 2024, in Glendale. (Photo by Sam Ballesteros/Cronkite News)

“The best part about this program is seeing and hearing from them (residents) on a basis where they’re also doing it themselves,” Samaddar said, noting he loves the “gratefulness and the joy on people’s faces” when he and Nagaiah help older adults sing or paint.

Nagaiah and Samaddar are set to graduate from high school this May, but hope to train more students and volunteers to continue the program. Currently, the program is funded by donations. Materials and information about getting involved are available on their Instagram, @ourode2you.

The duo is open to helping anyone interested in getting involved. Samaddar also hopes to start a new chapter of Our Ode to You when he gets to college, since he believes there is a great need for this type of community service.

“The program is wide open. You don’t have to be van Gogh. You don’t need to be Beyoncé,” Samaddar said. “Bringing yourself and your identity to the program is what senior citizens and memory-care patients love the most.”

(Video by Leslie Chapman/Cronkite News)
Lauren Kobley LOHR-in CO-blee
News Reporter, Phoenix

Lauren Kobley expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Kobley has reported for Arizona Foothills Magazine, The Arizona Republic, The State Press and ASU News.

Leslie Chapman(she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Leslie Chapman expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Chapman has interned as a producer at Arizona PBS and anchored for Blaze Radio and The Cut Network.

Sam Ballesteros sam by-yeh-STAIR-os (she/they)
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Sam Ballesteros expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in music. Ballesteros has interned as a photojournalist at The Arizona Republic and worked as a content creation assistant at Arizona PBS.