With specialized chorus, people with dementia keep singing

Mary and Steve Munt take part in rehearsal Nov. 21 as part of the Giving Voice Chorus. Meeting every Wednesday at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, the chorus is meant as therapy for those living with dementia. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)
Mary and Steve Munt take part in rehearsal Nov. 21 as part of the Giving Voice Chorus. Meeting every Wednesday at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, the chorus is meant as therapy for those living with dementia. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

They say the music is the last thing to go.

So, a collection of Alzheimer’s patients are still singing, thanks to a groundbreaking program called the Giving Voice Chorus, which brings together people from across the metro for music therapy while promoting a better public understanding of the disease.

“It took me about a year and a half of denial of this disease to actually get involved,” said Mary Munt, whose 70-year-old husband, Steve, is approaching the two-year anniversary of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

The Richfield couple signed up for the Giving Voice Chorus this fall, joining about 65 other singers for rehearsal every Wednesday morning at the MacPhail Center for Music in downtown Minneapolis. They’re preparing for a concert in which they’ll join another section of singers from the program to perform a concert Saturday, Dec. 17, at Olson Middle School in Bloomington.

When Steve Munt, who had worked as a mental health practitioner, was forced into retirement upon his diagnosis, “one of the things we were told is to get involved,” his wife said. “Don’t just stay in your house and become hermits.”

The specialized chorus is one activity on a menu of happenings each week that help Steve and Mary cope with their new reality.

“This is one part of many things that we do, but this is a highlight,” Mary said.

She speaks for her husband, who often has trouble conveying his thoughts verbally. “It takes a little time to get something out of my mouth,” Steve said.

Learning the music, ranging from “We are Family” to “Ode to Joy,” hasn’t helped Steve verbally, but it does have an effect on his mood, his wife observed.

“It makes him feel good,” she said. “He’s just happy. He’s happy that he’s coming here, he’s happy when we’re going home. And not that he’s ever been really sad, but it just kind of lifts him up, and when that happens, it lifts me up.”

The outward effects of Alzheimer’s take many forms, Mary explained. “Where Steve’s problem is he can’t spit it out sometimes,” other Alzheimer’s patients have no problem forming sentences, she said.

“If you know one case of Alzheimer’s, you know one case of Alzheimer’s,” said Nancy Fushan, a board member for Giving Voice.

While no two patients are alike, the progression of Alzheimer’s is consistent regarding the part of the brain that processes music, Fushan notes.

“It is the last part of the brain to be affected by the disease. Neuroscience has shown this,” she said.

The Giving Voice Chorus rehearses Nov. 21 at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. The singers are preparing for a Dec. 17 concert. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)
The Giving Voice Chorus rehearses Nov. 21 at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. The singers are preparing for a Dec. 17 concert. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

Learning as they grow

Giving Voice isn’t just therapy; the program is making its own contributions to Alzheimer’s research, as Fushan explained. When the chorus was forming three years ago, the founders weren’t sure the participants would be able to learn new music, but they were thrilled with their findings.

“People with Alzheimer’s can learn new music – they can,” Fushan said, animated with enthusiasm. “It’s so exciting for us. … It made it all the more certain in our minds that we are on to something.”

Another good sign was the program’s rapid growth. A group that started with 30 participants, comprised of Alzheimer’s patients each joined by a caregiver, doubled within its first year. Now, a chorus of about 100 chairs, split into two groups for weekly rehearsals, operates at the MacPhail Center for Music. Due to the demand, a St. Paul-based chorus was added to the program.

Now that they’ve confirmed the participants can learn new songs, the St. Paul chorus is now the subject of further Alzheimer’s research. The Health Partners Center for Memory and Aging is studying the St. Paul group, interviewing the participants before and after joining the chorus to better understand the program’s effects, according to Fushan.

“It’s a small group, but it may give us the first hint about really what is the impact on health and on psycho-emotional health,” she said. Those results are expected next fall.

Regardless of what more they learn, the idea behind Giving Voice is catching on in other regions. For instance, a woman from Vancouver, British Columbia, was visiting rehearsal last week as she prepared to begin a similar program in Canada, Fushan noted.

While formal research is underway to scientifically study the chorus’ benefits, “we see it every week,” Fushan said.

And it’s not just the music that helps. The social aspect of the chorus is vital for Steve, his wife explained, describing her husband as “really easy going and quiet.”

“This is important for him to be able to talk to people, someone other than me,” Mary said.

Having left her full-time job where she dealt with worker’s compensation insurance, Mary leaves her husband alone for stretches as she attends to some part-time work she picked up after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It helps for the couple to give each other some space at times, she said. It provides some balance as Mary gets used to being a caregiver.

“You become this mama bear person, even with your spouse,” she said. “I just always want to protect him. He really doesn’t need it. It’s just me, you know, wanting to do it.”

Steve tries to assuage her concerns, though. “I’m not gonna run away. There’s no where to go,” he quipped.

He can still show his sense of humor, and, having sung in choirs in his youth, still has his pipes. That’s another goal of Giving Voice – to show that people with Alzheimer’s still have something to contribute. It’s part of the reason they put on concerts twice annually instead of simply getting together privately every week.

“Our being out in public is to reduce the stigma,” Fushan said. People tend to think of individuals in the throes of the disease’s late stages, and not the years of functionality that often remain for those recently diagnosed.

“Often the early- to mid-stage goes eight to 12 years,” Fushan said, “and people are still able to contribute to the community in ways that we need to understand and we need to celebrate.”