What were the songs of your childhood? Which music brings back instant memories of family trips, the feel of humid nights, the smell of smoky campfires? What hymns did you hear over and over?
Music can be a powerful tool for people with dementia. Those with Alzheimer’s disease may have trouble with words, whether spoken or written, but music uses different pathways in the brain than language. Memory loss strikes “last in, first out,” the brain failing to register new information, while quickly serving up memories from years past. These factors combine to mean that even someone who can no longer carry on a conversation may still accurately sing every word of an old, treasured song.
Manassas (Va.) Church of the Brethren and the Alzheimer’s Association have sponsored the Forgetful Friends Chorus since 2016. About 25 people, some with dementia, their care partners, and friends, rehearse every other week and sing together at venues around the area. In 2018, the group performed at the Walk to End Alzheimer’s Disease, the Northern Virginia Dementia Care Consortium Caregivers Conference, several retirement communities and assisted living facilities, Nathan’s Dairy Bar, and a celebration of life service for a former member.
Recently at HarborChase of Prince William Commons, in Woodbridge, Va., 15 singers milled around a large lobby, admiring the silk flower arrangements, large square paintings, and geometrically carved wooden pillars. They helped each other tie on cheerful purple scarves with white polka dots (women) and purple bow ties (men): purple for Alzheimer’s awareness.
“Look how cute her scarf is. I tied it!” one member commented several times. “Does mine look okay?”
“Hi!” a friendly singer offered. “Did I already say that?” (Yes).
“I like your skirt! Did I already say that?” (Yes).
As they waited for director Susan Dommer and accompanist Linda Hollinger to finalize the stage setup, propping a keyboard up with a pillow, chorus members sang through some of their numbers.
“Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you!” A couple leaned in and pointed to each other while singing.
“See?” another member whispered. “I told you to watch those two sing together!”
Genuine affection warmed hearts.excitement, and enthusiasm filled the room.
Moving through a locked door into the memory care unit, the group sang songs from the early- and mid-1900s: “Bill Bailey,” “Rocking Around the Clock,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Daisy (Bicycle Built for Two)” with an original verse created by the chorus. Occasionally a caregiver leaned over to help someone turn a page.
Residents tapped their feet, swayed, and sang along—and so did the nursing staff accompanying them.
At the end of the performance, the chorus spread out to warmly greet audience members.
As longtime Manassas Church of the Brethren member Zenella Radford says about the chorus, “It’s exciting and fun. I like to talk to people!”
The difficulty of living with someone becoming increasingly lost shows up in small ways and in longer conversations. After the performance, one member talked about meeting his wife in a college choir. “She was the best singer in her year,” he said. “Now she can’t remember anything. Tomorrow she won’t remember this happened.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 5.7 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease in 2018, with 80 percent receiving care at home. Informal or unpaid caregiving can bring high levels of depression and anxiety, as well as poor health and economic hardships for caregivers.
Forgetful Friends Chorus exists for caregivers as well as those with dementia. It provides opportunities to socialize, make friends, find acceptance, sing, and serve others. It provides moments of connection, bringing joy to singers and audience alike.
“It’s so much fun when the audience members sing along,” director Susan Dommer says. “I know this could grow even more. We go to nursing homes and people are like, ‘We would love to do this!’”
When Forgetful Friends Chorus began, it was one of just four choruses in the US for individuals with dementia. Connie Young, the operations director—or, as Dommer says, “our ‘roadie’ and manager”—first ran across the Giving Voice Chorus in Minnesota, which provided information to help Forgetful Friends get started. Since that time, the number of similar groups has grown to more than 70, as people recognize the valuable role the choruses play.
A recent article from Religion News Service on dementia and religion posed the poignant question, “What if I forget about God?”
The article quoted geropsychologist Benjamin Mast: “If you ask a person who’s been deeply affected by Alzheimer’s about something that happened yesterday, you’re going to their weakness in terms of memory. But if we can engage them, for example, in the context of faith services with older songs and hymns that they’ve known for many years, we’re meeting them where they’re strong.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
No matter how much we forget, God remembers us.
Manassas Church of the Brethren, through the Forgetful Friends Chorus, provides an oasis of meaningful connection, a place to be remembered, and loved, and appreciated.
Want to start a chorus?
Giving Voice Chorus offers a toolkit at www.givingvoicechorus.org/start-chorus.
Forgetful Friends director Susan Dommer recommends getting in touch with the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Association. Go to www.alz.org and look for “Your Chapter” to find out if there is already a group in the area or if the local representative knows of people who would be interested in joining.
Memory Cafés are additional places to find potential members. These are dementia-friendly gatherings, often held monthly. Search online to see if any are nearby.
Jan Fischer Bachman is web editor for Messenger and a member of the Oakton (Va.) Church of the Brethren.