St. Paul music academy to expand its dementia-friendly chorus

three people sing wearing matching robes
Members of the Amazing Grace Chorus — a dementia-friendly chorus organized by the Walker|West Music Academy in St. Paul.
Courtesy of the Walker|West Music Academy

The Minnesota Board on Aging has awarded the Walker|West Music Academy in St. Paul more than $100,000 to expand its Amazing Grace Chorus, which engages people with dementia and works to get the word out about Alzheimer’s disease in the Black community.

It’s one of 11 grants totaling nearly $730,000 the board announced at the start of November, which is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, the disease is substantially more prevalent among African Americans than among whites. But Black people are less likely to be diagnosed, and when they are, it's often in later stages.

Shana Moses, who is program director at Walker|West and leads the Amazing Grace Chorus, joined MPR News host Tom Crann to discuss.

Their conversation is transcribed below and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What will this grant allow you to do that you can't do now?

This grant is so exciting because it allows us to expand the services that we were intending to give, especially when it comes to dispelling myths and any other mysteries concerning dementia in the African American community.

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What are those myths that you'd like to dispel?

One thing that really comes to mind is the stigma that's attached to even the diagnosis. Even the language of dementia in the African American community, it's not language that is quite normalized yet. People may say things like, “Mother is getting a little forgetful,“ or, “That's just how auntie is.” But sometimes there is evidence of dementia that begin to show up that we don't recognize. So we definitely want to move from giving it different language and really name what it is, because that is what gets the services and the support.

It seems like hymns and the songs we grow up singing are — I hate to put it in these terms —impervious to dementia or Alzheimer's. They break through, right?

They do because they sit in a well of memories — a well of cultural, historical memories. And in that well are memories of love, of affirmation. And it's amazing to see what happens when that light is turned on.

One of our lead vocalists, when it's time for her to lead a song, we see her approach the mic needing assistance, especially if stairs are involved. But when that beat drops and when those voices come in behind her, you will see the same woman walk down steps, walk toward the audience and engage them in the lyrics and in the story of the song. She's singing to them. So I've seen her come to life and be vibrant, and then I've also seen when the song ends, something shifts and she needs someone to escort her back to the very seat she came from.

We hear constantly about efforts to increase awareness about all sorts of things, but how important is raising awareness of dementia and Alzheimer's for the African American community?

I think it's a critical piece. What we've discovered is it makes room to have the tongue move. Where someone can say, “Yes I do know someone who has dementia,” or who is showing signs of dementia. And there's so much that happens when that stigma and that fear is diminished and released.