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For some with memory loss, patriotic songs spark recollections of Fourths long ago

Miya Usui, 84, seated in the center of the first row, attends a community activity Monday at Iona Senior Services in Washington. (Cortlynn Stark/The Washington Post)

Miya Usui doesn’t remember how old she is, how many siblings she has or that she dropped out of college to care for her family.

But after singing patriotic songs and listening to iconic poetry Monday at Iona Senior Services in Northwest Washington, she was able to recall sitting on a blanket decades ago to watch Fourth of July fireworks with her family.

The “Poetry of the Flag” activity was part of Iona’s Wellness & Arts Center, which tries to use holiday celebrations and other familiar rituals to bring moments of clarity to aging adults with memory loss.

A volunteer led the group in singing “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and reading works from poets such as Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman.

Gregory Everett, 67, took the handheld microphone during “America the Beautiful,” his voice rumbling out the words:

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.

“It’s really amazing how people may not remember what they had for lunch . . . but they can remember these songs,” Wellness & Arts Center director Sharon O’Connor said. “They can sing the song through from beginning to end, all the way through, so it’s amazing how music can really tap into that long-term memory.”

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According to the National Institute on Aging, studies show a strong correlation between overall health of seniors and social interaction. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Music Therapy found that songs from the past, in particular those relating to someone’s social and national identity, could provoke memories.

O’Connor, 62, says the Wellness & Arts Center focuses on what their clients can still do — not what they can’t do.

At the pre-Fourth of July event on Monday, one senior read the lines of Hughes’s jazzy “Dream Boogie”: “Hey, pop! Re-bop! Mop!”

Ike Hunter, 85, who was sitting under the American flag, said the poem “sounds like music all day long.”

Afterward, Usui, 84, sat at a table with several other women, preparing to solve a puzzle.

Her graying shoulder-length hair framed her face as she recalled her past, with O’Connor filling in the gaps.

She came to the United States from her native Japan with her family, when she was just 4 years old. Her father was a minister.

They lived in California, with Usui the oldest of 10 siblings. During World War II, the family was forced into an internment camp.

The memory of spending July 4 with her family as a child is a fleeting one, Usui said — like most memories. But it is there.

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Geneva Hagans recalled having dinner with her family on July 4 decades ago, at a waterfront restaurant.

“Oh, my, my, yes!” the 93-year-old said when asked what she remembers from her childhood about July 4. She clutched her brown purse, which holds important addresses and names.

The Iona activities forge friendships for participants and stimulate their minds, attendees said.

“If we did not have a program like this, people would probably be sitting at home and watching TV,” O’Connor said. “They wouldn’t have the connection to community . . . when you lose that connection to community, you can’t help but have a decline in your health.”

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