Robert Fabiano, 61, has been a practicing neuropsychologist for nearly three decades, but for the past three years he’s found a new way to reach out to patients, raise funds and spread awareness for brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s — rock ‘n’ roll.
“Other programs exist and have their own special missions. Mine was entirely to raise money for these agencies, and the best way I knew how was through music,” Fabiano said. “I’m certainly not the first person to come up with the idea, but I certainly have capitalized on it.”
Rockin’ For Rehab, which sees Fabiano work double duty as performer and promoter, is a bi-annual fundraiser organized to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Great Lakes Chapter — the local chapter of the world’s largest nonprofit devoting funds toward Alzheimer’s research — and in December, the Brain Injury Association of Michigan. Organizers estimate proceeds from the upcoming East Lansing concert could reach $35,000.
This year marks Rockin’ for Rehab’s third incarnation, and another event featuring a marquee performance by Fabiano’s classic rock and blues inspired outfit: Dr. Fab and the Off the Couch Band.
A longtime rock fan, high school madrigal singer and thankful witness of preplane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd, Fabiano was pushed into musicianship by the second Iraq War, during the George W. Bush administration. That led him to learn protest songs by Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.
“I started expressing myself through covers of old protest songs. I wrote some of my own songs and hit the little coffee shop circuits,” Fabiano said. “That put me in contact with other musicians and other vocalists, which lead to the emergence of the Off the Couch Band.”
As a neuropsychologist, Fabiano is in close contact with diseases that often come as a crippling blow to their patients, but he is optimistic about music’s ability to provide relief — if only momentarily.
“Music is one way to kind of transcend the complexities that the brain deals with. It really can speak to the heart of the human being,” he said. “Oftentimes, individuals who are otherwise debilitated by catastrophic illness and injuries can really be moved by music. That’s certainly the case at our events.”
Fabiano mentioned that one of the songs his band covers, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” is deeply cutting. Its author, Glen Campbell, died from complications related to Alzheimer’s last year. Campbell went on his final high-profile tour in 2011 when he was going through the early stages of the disease.
The song outlines Campbell’s struggle with lyrics that read, “I’m still here, but yet I’m gone,” and “You’re the last face I will recall, and best of all, I’m not gonna miss you.” Fabiano was touched by the song and the final concert series, citing his appreciation for the publicity Campbell was able to raise for the disease.
Though Alzheimer’s is a deeply complex issue, Fabiano aims to hold an event that avoids a dull parade of endless PowerPoint presentations rife with medical jargon.
“The one thing people will say almost unanimously about Rockin’ for Rehab — if they’ve attended — is that it’s super fun,” Fabiano said. “There are no long, drawnout speeches and there’s no PowerPoint presentations of the program. It is basically music, food, beverages, and lots of socializing and dancing.”
Fabiano said he began his practice when there was almost no medication or viable longtime treatment — aside from care-taking — for Alzheimer’s patients. Fabiano was responsible for the diagnosis and the subsequent education of family members on how they could assist their loved one. He had the hard job of explaining the harsh deteriorating nature of the condition.
“There were essentially no medications available, so there was very little we could offer in terms of actual treatment,” Fabiano said. “About the only thing that can really help slow down the deterioration of the brain itself are the the medications.”
While there’s still no cure for Alzheimer’s, medication is making a difference, Fabiano said. He said these advancements can significantly prolong the years of quality living for an Alzheimer’s patient.
But despite the progress, there still exists ignorance and harmful stigma. Alzheimer’s is often talked about as a mental illness, which Fabiano called a mischaracterization.
“One of the popular misconceptions is to misconstrue a deteriorating or degenerative brain disease as a mental illness,” he said. “While the deteriorating effects can certainly create psychiatric symptoms, it’s different from a person who may have a chronic mental illness.”
Samantha West of the Alzheimer's Association Great Lakes Chapter added, "There is still no cure, prevention, or treatment for Alzheimer's. The currently-approved Alzheimer’s drugs, while modestly helpful to many people, do not change the course of the disease, but they do provide some symptomatic relief to some people with Alzheimer’s."
He added that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not evidence of low intelligence — rather that one’s personal intellect has little impact on the disease itself. “It’s not as simple as people being smart or stupid. What we’re able to do in these examinations is compare them to what we would estimate them to have been before the onset of the disease.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Great Lakes Chapter, there are 180,000 Alzheimer’s patients in Michigan with the associated Medicaid costs exceeding $1 billion.
“We’re raising money for two very outstanding agencies. The Alzheimer’s Association is the largest financial foundation for research in Alzheimer’s disease worldwide,” Fabiano said. “They’re just an extremely important association.”
Rockin’ for Rehab Alzheimer’s Benefit
$65 Friday, May 11 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Huntington Club 535 Chestnut Road, East Lansing www.alz.org/mglc (734) 369-2716
This article has been edited to clarify that the May benefit concert is for the Alzheimer's Association Great Lakes Chapter, while the December concert is for the Brain Injury Association of Michigan. An additional quote by Samantha was also included.