Alzheimer's patients connect with others through singing

Giving Voice choir
Catherine and Robert Saumweber, a couple dealing with Alzheimer's, laugh during a Giving Voice rehearsal break, Nov. 26, 2014 at MacPhail Center for the Arts in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Mary Margaret Lehmann loves Wednesdays.

It's the day when she and her husband get to sing.

Together, they sing with Giving Voice Chorus, a Minneapolis-based choir of Alzheimer's patients and their caretakers.

Lehman is a caretaker for her husband, who has shown signs of the disease for nearly two decades.

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She said singing, and celebrating music, has opened a new chapter in her husband's long battle with the disease.

"He is thriving with the singing. He has downloaded all of the tunes on his iPod," Lehman said. "[He] has the DVD going in the car. We are singing, we're teaching our grandchildren the songs that we're singing in the concert."

Giving Voice choir
Members of Giving Voice rehearse for a concert, Nov. 26, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Giving Voice Chorus will host two concerts Saturday afternoon at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.

• April 2014: For Alzheimer's patients, music can be a light in the darkness

Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, the choir's music director, said the spirit shared by the choir members keeps her going.

"What I love more than anything is the unbridled enthusiasm, and just unabashed joy," she said, noting that choir members are not tense or worried about perfection. "It's just — let's go for it. Let's do it. And there's so much freedom and the sound is fabulous."

Those suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of memory loss often retain the ability to sing — and recall music from their past — into the later stages of their disease.

Brindley-Barnett said singing helps many in the choir put voice and power behind their words. For them, music is like grease for the brain machinery that lies between thought and articulation.

Holding hands
Tom and Julie Allen hold hands as they return to their seats after singing a duet, Nov. 26, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"There's just that fluidity of sound ... and that's why we do a lot of just, you know, [singing] 'how are you today? I'm fine,'" she said. "We have our today's opera — we're just gonna sing everything instead of speak it — and that is just very fun and freeing so you're not having to go through all those other steps."

The choir's sound is not handicapped by the fact that many of its members suffer from Alzheimer's disease, Brindley-Barnett said.

"This group, I work 'em hard. I mean, I don't work them any less than any other professional or volunteer chorus," she said. "We work the body big time with the breath. We work our tone, our resonance."

Besides the joy and relief singing offers to choir members, the quality of life the chorus provides could be its more subtle power.

That's because it offers proof that an Alzheimer's diagnosis does not spell the end of a vibrant, expressive life.

"What I'm doing is being the catalyst, to bring an experience, an opportunity, for folks together just for the joy of singing," Brindley-Barnett said. "And that joy and that ability doesn't change with the disease of Alzheimer's.

Mother and daugther
Doris Sterner, foreground, and her daughter Anne Sterner rehearse for a concert.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"Maybe finding our place on Page 2, or finding this lyric, whatever, might be a challenge," she said. "But as far as deserving to be heard, and to do away with the stigma of the disease, and let people know that everybody, you know, we are all here — equally creative until our last breath."

This idea rings true for Bruce Erickson, who has been living with Alzheimer's for 10 years. He tries to keep active, and when he heard about Giving Voices, he jumped at the chance to join.

Erickson said he's well aware of the stereotypes of Alzheimer's. He works hard to challenge those images.

"Everybody thinks that you're gonna go wacko," he said with a laugh. "Is that the right word? I guess I don't know. And they just automatically get off the planet. And it's not true."

Erickson said the music helps him even when he's not performing or at practice.

"It just keeps you in the feeling, it kind of soothes your soul," he said. "I don't know another way to put it."