Gary Cole still has a playlist for his late wife, Nina Maria, on his phone. She was never a musician but loved to dance.

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“Nina’s tunes” is full of music from Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Glenn Miller and other classics. For nearly five years at the end of her life, Cole’s wife struggled with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and the playlist was something she and her husband listened to frequently during her time at the James L. West Center for Dementia Care

I would hold my phone up to her ear and we would dance around in the halls,” he said. “And she just loved the music.”

Cole, who visited the center daily, noticed that music was helpful not just to his wife but to many of the other residents as well.

“It was really a miracle to me,” he said. “They could hardly talk. And if they had been a piano player in their youth, they could sit down at the piano and play music. … Some people from the Fort Worth Opera came down, and they were singing opera pieces, and the guy stood up and started singing in Italian — and he could hardly talk.”

After his wife died, Cole started having conversations with the center about the best way to honor her memory, and eventually the Nina Maria Cole Music and Arts Fund was born. 

“It really built a bridge to the arts community in Fort Worth,” said Cathy Neece Brown, chief strategy officer at James L. West. “The arts are something that our residents and the families with persons living with dementia enjoyed before they came to James L. West … And so it is an extension of what they have known throughout their life and offers assistance and normalcy for someone living in a long-term care community.”

James L. West has always had a small budget for music therapy, Neece Brown said. But the generosity of the Cole family allowed the center to expand the program and its reach.

Instead of contracting a music therapist part time, the fund allowed the facility to hire one full time and purchase instruments for those sessions. The money also supports intergenerational programming with Texas Christian University’s early childhood music program.

The donation also supports the concert series and allows the facility to pay artists for their time preparing and performing a set.

Residents at the James L. West Center for Dementia Care listen to a concert performed by harpist Sydney Howell. The concert is part of a program that brings different performing arts groups in each month — a schedule the center hopes to rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

Now in its fifth season, the program held its first post-pandemic concert in September. 

Musician Sydney Howell entered the building’s parlor with her harp and husband Daniel in tow. As she plucked strings, the notes of a few familiar classical pieces and hymns resonated in the room as some residents nodded and hummed along.

The hourlong performance explored several different styles of music from Bach to “Bésame Mucho,” and each piece, no matter how distinct it was from the others, was selected intentionally.

I just think music helps anybody. And that’s why I try to play a variety of music, hoping that each one of them would relate in some way,” she said.

Starting a conversation or finding an activity to do with a loved one who has dementia can be challenging, Neece Brown said. The performance series can be a gift to families by giving them a low-pressure environment to enjoy together.

This gift is one that Neece Brown hopes will continue to expand across the community and other care facilities.

“Living well means including all aspects of your life. And I really feel like oftentimes elders and people that are in long term care are not afforded really the opportunity to engage with the things that they’ve known all of their life,” she said. “ It’s such a unique program … I think once that seed is planted, then things like this just continue to grow.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...