Stan Leonard, 87, was always very musical — the Lilydale resident sings well and can play the piano by ear. But his family didn’t realize how important that talent would be until recently.
"We didn’t pay attention to it until now," Sue Leonard said. "He had a lot of other talents."
Stan was a pediatrician and pursued athletics, she said. But when age and dementia set in, those skills faded.
When the couple moved into their apartment at Lilydale Senior Living, they made room for a power grand piano that Stan plays for an hour or so every day.
"I know that, for a fact, music is the one thing that does seem to hang on when everything else fades," Sue Leonard, 87, said.
About a year ago, the couple joined a Minneapolis-based chorus called Giving Voice.
Giving Voice is a choir for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers, the Rochester counterpart to which begins rehearsals in less than two weeks.
As part of Resounding Voices, Rochester residents with cognitive decline will be able to engage with music. And by doing so, they may be able to prove to the community that dementia isn’t just about cognitive decline — it’s about potential.
Terri Edwards, the couple’s daughter, has attended several rehearsals and concerts in the Cities since her parents joined Giving Voice in the Cities.
"It’s been a phenomenal experience, I think, for both of them," Edwards said. "It’s a pure joy that they have in making something special for others, without being judged."
Suzanne Johnson, the artistic director for Rochester’s Resounding Voices chorus, saw the impact of Giving Voice firsthand at a national American Choral Directors Association meeting in March of last year.
She was touched by the choir’s performance and asked about starting a Rochester choir (already in the works, thanks to a group, Rochester ACT on Alzheimer’s).
Johnson will direct the choir, select its music, and oversee the organization.
The Resounding Voice is modeled after the Minneapolis Choir, and will meet weekly beginning April 3.
Giving Voice has about a 50-50 split of members with mild memory impairment and their caregivers, Sue Leonard said, with a few "fillers" who sing with the choir.
"Many of the people do have more musical backgrounds, but nobody makes an issue whether you do or you don’t," she said.
Angela Lunde, a board member for Resounding Voices, also studies Alzheimer’s Disease at Mayo Clinic.
What we know about dementia and music is mainly positive, she said. Although the reasons aren’t clear yet, it appears that the areas of the brain involved with musical memory and learning are less damaged by the cognitive decline that is characteristic of the disease.
Music may also be able to unlock memories and evoke emotions, Lunde said.
"We’ve known for a long time that people even in the late stages, even in the end stages, maintain the ability to connect to certain types of music," she said. "Even though they might not be singing the music, you can tell there’s a connection there. Maybe by their eyes opening a little bit wider or some facial expression or tapping of the toes, or movement of the hands and arms, something like that. It’s a strong indication that there is some connection to that music or that song."
Routine and rehearsal
When Johnson picked out songs for Resounding Voices’ beginning rehearsals and eventual first concert in June, she looked for songs that would be familiar to her singers — Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, musical theater classics.
For example, the concert, which will have a ‘morning’ theme, will include the song "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" from the 1943 musical "Oklahoma!"
"If you pin down most people over the age of 40, they’ve heard that song," Johnson said.
Sue Leonard said she’s "not a singer," but she knew the words to "a million songs" before joining Giving Voice.
"Every person in the choir is going to have music that is special to them," Johnson said. "You kind of have to choose a variety because you don’t know what people are going to be interested in."
The chorus will perform with song books in front of them and have practice CDs available for at-home studying, as Johnson tries to build singing stamina, but also reinforce the words and music.
The choir rehearsals will tap into procedural memory, Lunde said, or the kind of recall that is created by repetition.
People with dementia can often remember songs they’ve sung before, she said. But they can also learn new music and voice parts easily through simple practice.
Practices for Resounding Voices will begin on April 3, but — this is crucial — members can still join the choir at any time.
The chorus will not require an audition — which was a relief for Sue Leonard.
"There’s nothing negative that’s there," she said.
There may not be anything negative inherent in choruses like Resounding Voices or Giving Voice, but many people facing dementia fear disclosing their diagnosis all the same.
"When I talk to communities or just individuals in general, when I’m doing trainings and I ask people to describe to me what comes to mind when they think about dementia, they often describe it in terms of loss and fear, and someone who’s old and somebody who might have agitation," Lunde said.
Lunde hopes that the Rochester community will see dementia and Alzheimer’s through a different lens with the help of Resounding Voices’ high-level performances.
But she does understand that some potential members will have to overcome social hurdles first.
Namely, they’ll have to understand that joining the choir isn’t something that further stigmatizes people with dementia.
"It’s a really difficult thing to be willing to disclose to other people," Lunde said. "Family members can be difficult, not to mention your neighbors or your community."
‘I think you see people’
The benefits of joining, though, are myriad. Choruses like Resounding Voices may mitigate the effects of social isolation, which can come along with a diagnosis of dementia.
Resounding Voices won’t be a be-all, end-all for members, but it’s important to have the option in Rochester, Lunde thinks, ""at a time when they may feel like there’s less and less for them to do."
"It will provide a way to address the perceptions and the attitudes and the beliefs that we hold around dementia, and to see people living with dementia in a way that might go against what I think we often perceive," she said. "When you’re at one of these concerts, I don’t think you see dementia. I think you see people. And you hear really great music that makes you feel good. That, I think, is pretty spectacular."