Bruce and Anne Hunt had not been part of a singing group in more than 50 years, but they were among the first to sign up when they heard about a new kind of choir forming in Chicago. The organizers promised: No musical experience or training needed. Instead, the choir was recruiting from a more select group — people with memory loss and their caregivers.
Anne Hunt, 82, a retired writer, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and was worried about the social isolation that befalls many with dementia. Bruce Hunt, also 82, was looking for a community that fit their new reality.
Now, more than a year later, the Hunts call the Good Memories Choir rehearsals a highlight of their week. An added bonus: “We turned out to be better singers than we expected to be,” Bruce Hunt said.
Their choir is one of a growing number tailored for people with dementia and their caregivers. At least 67 such choirs have formed worldwide in recent years, according to the Giving Voice Initiative, an organization that has inspired many of them and also provides start-up materials. Just this year, at least 10 dementia choirs were started, including Forgetful Friends in Midlothian, Va., and Together in Song in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Mary Mittelman, a research professor with the Center for Cognitive Neurology at New York University, started a choir called the Unforgettables Chorus in 2011 to study the effects of a choir on people with dementia and their family members. Her research found that participants with early to middle-stage dementia had increased communication with their caregivers, as well as improved their overall quality of life. Their family members and caregivers reported a boost in feelings of social support, communication and self-esteem.
Mittleman found that for people with dementia, the choirs offer powerful stimulation and enhanced social connections. They also provide a structured opportunity to enjoy an activity with loved ones.
“Whether or not people remember things, and whether or not they’re cognitively present, we know they can feel joy,” said Jonathan Miller, a co-founder of the Good Memories Choir and its conductor.
Singing is often used as a therapeutic tool for people with dementia. Research suggests that music-related memories maintain a strong hold, even for those who struggle with basic vocabulary or short-term recall.
Brain-imaging technology shows why. Musical memory — which requires knowledge of melody and tempo
and often conjures an emotional response — involves more regions of the brain than most types of memory, and some of these regions are less susceptible to the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Miller recalled how his friend Brian Newhouse, a board member for the Giving Voice Initiative, told him in 2016 how transformative choir singing could be for people with cognitive impairment. Newhouse told him that about half an hour into rehearsal, he couldn’t tell who had memory loss and who didn’t.
The conversation led Miller, a longtime choral director, and his wife, Sandy Miller, a clinical psychologist, to visit the Minneapolis-based Giving Voice Choir. They were so impressed, they decided to start their own choir in Chicago.
It took a while to get off the ground, but Good Memories Choir had its first rehearsal in September. It now has about 40 members, evenly spread among people with memory loss, caregivers and other community volunteers.
Volunteers are community members who are dedicating their time to the choirs. They are the “magic and the glue” of the choir, said Jonathan Miller.
Their role is to notice whether someone needs help and slide in to support them by singing the correct notes or rhythms, or helping to get them back on track if they lose their place in the song. This frees up the caregivers to have time to sing unfettered without other responsibilities.
This is an unusual approach, Miller said, because there are plenty of programs that offer caregivers a break, but far fewer that give them an opportunity to join people with dementia for a fun activity to feel good about.
Anna Brothers, 67, a retired schoolteacher and choir member, picks up her mother from a memory care facility each week to take her to Good Memories practice. She said having a common goal of singing in a choir has deepened their bond because they “spend time together, work together, reflect together, laugh together, have fun together.”
Choir practices always start with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” from the musical “Oklahoma.” “Everybody knows the song, and there is a whole lot of energy in that,” said Bruce Hunt.
Rehearsals and the song selection are designed to be uplifting and positive.
Jonathan Miller, the conductor, encourages choir members to turn to each other and say “Good job” after a challenging passage. And if they miss a note, he says: “Keep singing!”
Anne Hunt said she likes the social hour before the choir practice begins, when people bring snacks to share.
“If you don’t understand the music, most people can talk about food,” she said. “I don’t think there are people who are really left out.”
The inaugural performance of the Good Memories Choir took place this month in the light-filled sanctuary of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. It lasted about 60 minutes and started with “Blue Skies” and “Que Sera Sera” and concluded with “What a Wonderful World” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Choir members dressed in purple scarves, the color of Alzheimer’s awareness.
As they sang, the most visible cue that some choir members might have cognitive impairment was someone occasionally leaning over to help a partner find the correct place in the score. The help was received with smiles and gratitude.
Bruce Hunt said with Good Memories, each person is celebrated for what they have to offer the group.
“There is a real affirmation of whatever gifts you’ve got,” he said.
Roscoe Nicholson is a writer and researcher on aging. His primary interests include the neuroscience of aging and programs and organizations that foster the forging of social bonds.