Alzheimer’s: Amazingly, it can be something to sing about

Logo for Time Remembered - Time Forgotten

You wouldn’t think that Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia was something to sing about.

I’m not talking about the effect music can have on someone with dementia, which I happened to witness just the other day at the memory care facility where my mother lives. (I arrived in the middle of a concert — a man playing his guitar and singing old, familiar songs. Several of the residents were singing along and tapping their feet. One woman was practically jumping out of her chair with the urge to dance. I’d never seen her act so lively before.)

I mean a musical composition that tries to tell the story of Alzheimer’s. There really is one. It was written in 2008 by composer Robert S. Cohen.

The way I understand the story is that in 2007 a member of the Susquehanna Valley Chorale in Pennsylvania wanted a musical work composed about Alzheimer’s in honor of his parents who both died of the disease. He got the ball rolling by making a donation to the Chorale. The Chorale commissioned Cohen and the result was Alzheimer’s Stories.

Here’s a quote from Cohen that I found on his website:

“As a composer who has straddled the worlds of both musical theatre and concert music, I feel that the primary role of music is to move people. I believe that music should tell a story whether that story is expressed in a literal or abstract form; to take his audience on an emotional and intellectual journey.”

That’s exactly what Alzheimer’s Stories does. The Susquehanna Valley Chorale premiered the work in 2009 at a musical program called “Monument to Memory.”

Choral Art Society in concert

Choral Art Society in concert

On Saturday, May 9, the Choral Art Society (South Portland, Maine) will present the New England premiere of Alzheimer’s Stories at a musical program called Time Remembered –Time Forgotten

“Our music director, Robert Russell brought a recording of it and the score to a committee meeting where we do some program planning,” explains CAS member Andrea Graichen. “He said ‘Take some time listening to this and let me know what you think. Should we program this?’ Every one of us said absolutely. It’s beautiful music.”

Three movements

Alzheimer’s Stories has three movements:

The Numbers describes the discovery of Alzheimer’s by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1901 and his first patient Auguste Deter. As the chorus “spits out dry data,” describes Andrea, “the baritone soloist takes on the role of Alzheimer’s and asks the mezzo soloist taking on the role of Deter, What is your name? She says her name. What is your husband’s name? She repeats her own name. What about your children? I have children? And so in the midst of all the data are real people. It’s really interesting what Robert Cohen did there.”

The Stories is a collection of stories taken from the Susquehanna Valley Chorale’s blog, where members of the Chorale and the community had shared personal Alzheimer’s stories. For example, says Andrea (who is the mezzo soloist), “The baritone soloist gets to sing the song of when he was in the navy and the chorus sings ‘Oh, here we go again’ — the repetition of the stories is so classic with a lot of the Alzheimer’s patients —and the mezzo soloist tells the story of being on the ship with Daddy going to Panama when perhaps the Panama canal had just opened.”

The Caregivers is an affirming movement for Andrea and resonates with a powerful message. “Hold on to things like the memories or the music that you might have shared and celebrate the joy and love.”

Cohen says the ending was the most difficult part to write — he wanted it to have “some semblance of hope.”

“The clue,” he writes on his website, “came in a recollection by one of the chorus members about a visit to a nursing home where a patient asked them to sing. When asked what, the patient replied. ‘Sing anything.’ First referenced in the second movement, this idea became the centerpiece and focus of the last movement. The core of the brilliantly realized libretto is as follows:

Find those you love in the dark and light.
Help them through the days and nights.
Keep faith.
They sense what they cannot show.
Love and music are the last things to go.
Sing anything.”

Alzheimer’s forum included

The New England premiere of Alzheimer’s Stories is itself of work of several movements, beginning with an informational forum at 6:45 pm. The forum will feature:

Choral Art Society Music Director Dr. Robert Russell
Composer Robert S. Cohen
Alzheimer’s Association Maine Chapter Program Director William Kirkpatrick
Music Therapist Kate Beever
Poet/actress/activist Judy Prescott, author of Searching for Cecy: Reflections on Alzheimer’s

The concert begins at 8:00 pm and includes songs of celebration and remembrance performed by the Choral Art Camerata, poetry readings by Judy Prescott and Alzheimer’s Stories performed by the Chorale Art Masterworks Chorus.

Because so many people have been touched by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in one way or another, it’s likely to be not only an informative experience but also an emotional one. Simply rehearsing the songs from Alzheimer’s Stories has already had an impact. “These are the words of real people,” explains CAS member Karen Birthisel, “be they caretakers or their affected loved ones. Underlying it all is a life-affirming vibrancy. You hear voices layered one over another, mirroring how one feels in the presence of one whose memory is lost – the confusion, the love, the processing of grief and gratitude, the speaking, the experiences. You hear precious memories of what had been retained by others, all lovingly woven together in melody.”

Concert details

If you can do it by Saturday, May 2, attendees are invited to submit photos of loved ones, family, friends, or caregivers to be honored at the event. Submitted photos will be projected in the concert hall prior to the performance and names will be printed in the concert program. You’ll find the details online at choralart.org. In addition, the concert lobby will feature a gallery display of therapies and coping ideas for Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers.

Time Remembered –Time Forgotten will be presented Saturday, May 9 at the South Portland High School Auditorium. The forum begins at 6:45 pm and the concert at 8:00 pm. General admission tickets $25 and can be purchased online at choralart.org. A portion of the ticket sales goes to the Maine Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

If you’d like a sneak preview of the concert, Andrea was kind enough to send me a short video shot at a recent rehearsal – snippets of songs from Alzheimer’s Stories.

Yes, amazingly, Alzheimer’s is something you can sing about.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.