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Chorus helps seniors living with Alzheimer's and dementia: 'Nothing more powerful than music'

Posted at 6:43 PM, May 16, 2023

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Walk through the doors of Salisbury Presbyterian Church on a Thursday morning and you will be greeted by dozens of smiling, singing faces. They belong to the dozens of members of the Joyful Voices Chorus. The chorus has been meeting and singing together for the past five years. While it may look like a sing-a-long for seniors, behind the melodies are memories.

"There's almost nothing more powerful than music," artistic director Joanne Sherman said. "Music really restores many emotions."

Sherman said the chorus is for people suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

She said the church's music director was inspired to form it after seeing a similar group, The Giving Voice Chorus.

"He saw this and knowing that we had five or six people in our own adult chancel choir dealing with memory loss and still singing Brahms, Beethoven, reading the music, getting the words across -- it was all strong past memory that was not lost. Even if they could, at times, not put a good sentence together to communicate," said Sherman. "And then…September 13, 2018, we had our first rehearsal and it was just so exciting."

Sherman said the aim of the chorus is to give those patients and their loved ones a safe space to socialize and take part in an activity to keep the brain healthy.

"Music really restores many emotions… dementia course directors would say you don't lose your music reading and your music ability until the very late stages of dementia," said Sherman. "It really is the whole emotional aspect. It's not what they remember. It's how they feel. And that's what music and fine arts do. They just bring back those feelings…and by that, you're not only giving a sense of well-being, you're also sparking those synapses. So, they're lighting up and connecting and that helps to keep that brain healthier for longer."

"We always say there is no wrong in the room. There's just people who are comfortable to forget a name. We do wear name tags to help us, but if they forget a name or they say something that might be just a little bit silly -- it's all acceptable here."

Sherman added the benefits of the program can be felt not only by the patients but their caretakers or spouses who take part as well.

"We all walk out of here on Thursday mornings, healthier, happier, more joyful, and a little bit brighter," she said. "We sing together to stimulate the mind, energize the body and elevate the spirit in an attempt to defy dementia one song at a time."

Those benefits are attested to by Ellen and Houston Staton. The couple has been married for 51 years, raising a family of two sons, and settling in Richmond in 1983.

"Ellen was an extremely kind person, extremely nice person. She was easy to talk to. She was pretty much kind to everyone and it just made it easy for us," said Houston.

Ellen was diagnosed with early-onset dementia in 2020.

"You go through a certain amount of a depression-type thing. But, then, we've learned to live with it. We've come together, it's probably made us closer. We depend on each other," said Houston, who added they joined the chorus after finding out about it from another support group. "It means so much to us every week to meet as a group because you have like-people with the same type of problem. It's meant so much to us from her standpoint or to me, personally, because I've met some great friends."

While for Sherman, it is a new chance to keep doing what she has done for decades -- having previously taught children and run a music academy.

"Nothing brings me more joy -- how can an old lady like me after having two careers still give back and this is just absolute joy for me," said Sherman. "It feeds my soul, feeds my sense of well-being and every week I leave here with spirits lifted."

Among the joyous moments for Sherman, was how the group adapted to keep going during Covid and hosted not only virtual rehearsals but virtual concerts as well.

"We thrived. Oh, my goodness, I was so proud of them and they were so proud of themselves," she added.

And Sherman said along with celebrating their five-year anniversary, the group will be presented with an award for their work from the Commonwealth Council on Aging (adding to the one they had received earlier this year from the Southern Gerontological Society.

"It's such an honor and such a thrill for them to recognize the good work these people are doing and what they mean to a community to educate the community to nullify that stigma about Alzheimer's and dementia," said Sherman.

The concert will also feature a tribute song to the 20 members who have passed since the group's founding.

"It just memorializes those 20 wonderful spirits that shared time with us and as the song says, 'May your days be filled with joy,'" said Sherman.

Sherman added they will also make room for anyone interested in joining the chorus, but if you are not ready for that and just want to enjoy some music.

"Just come put on a happy face. Because the bigger the audience, the better they sing."

This Thursday, May 18, the chorus will host its spring concert, called "Put on a Happy Face", at the church at 11 a.m. Tickets at $12.

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