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Dementia-friendly chorus wraps first session with upcoming performance

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From left: Marilyn Heltzer, her daughter Kathy Heltzer, Jane Peterson and Sally Rogers dance during Victory Chorus practice at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth on March 24. Music director Karen Bauman said the "move and grove" portion of practice allows the chorus to get the wiggles out and sing familiar songs like "Tea for Two" and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road." Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com 2 / 5
Karen Bauman directs The Victory Chorus during practice at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth on March 24. The chorus includes 10 participants who are living with dementia. Each participant is partnered with a buddy who guides them through each song. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com 3 / 5
From left: Volunteers Amelia Wise, Anne Skwira-Brown, Lesley Lenox and Malia Bortnem sing during Victory Chorus practice at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth on March 24. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com 4 / 5
Kathy Heltzer (right) and her mother, Marilyn Heltzer (second from right), sing during The Victory Chorus practice at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth on March 24. Marilyn is one of 10 participants in the chorus who is living with dementia. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com 5 / 5

Leanne Joynes noticed a change during a Christmas service. Her mother knew every note to every song without looking at a hymnal.

"We were in shock; we both got emotional," Joynes' daughter, Madi, said of her grandmother.

"She didn't really know it was Christmas, she didn't really know what we were doing, and ... she's belting out the words.

"It was so powerful to know she still has that."

 Music director Karen Bauman greets Jane Peterson and Sally Rogers after Victory Chorus practice. DNTSoon after, the three started singing in the Victory Chorus, a local group of 30 volunteer singers or family members and 10 participants with dementia or Alzheimer's.

The group started rehearsing in January, and they will perform at 2 p.m. on May 5 at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth. Victory Chorus is supported by the Victory Foundation and Dementia Friendly Duluth, a local project launched in 2016 to support people with dementia, Alzheimer's disease and their families.

"People living with different stages of dementia, there's always such a stigma — 'They can't do that anymore.' But we're all about showing people they can, and we will," said Beth Kaiser, Victory Chorus program coordinator.

During a recent rehearsal, five deer grazed outside the large picture windows at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth. Chorus director Karen Bauman stood animated at the head, waving her arms while conducting, and singing herself at times.

In between songs like "Amazing Grace" and "Song Song Blue," she prompted singers to "wet your whistle."

"Sopranos, sit up straight."

"Turn to the person nearest to you and say 'thank you for singing with us.'"

Volunteers helped turn sheet music; some assisted by pointing along with the words. Everyone wore nametags, and in the pews sat care partners, reading or listening.

"They don't have a responsibility," said Mimi Stender, Dementia Friendly Duluth director. "It's maybe a chance for them to get a little bit of respite."

During a break, Katey Fornear shared what music means to her. During the move and groove portion, members sang "Oklahoma," substituting in "Minnesota," and mirroring Bauman lifting hands and moving fingers.

You can't feel like you don't belong when you do this, she said afterward.

More than rehearsal, it's community building and social time, Kaiser said. "Persons living with dementia and their families can be very isolated."

A group like this is important for Duluth. "If we're the community we want to be, we need to address all our citizens," Bauman said. And Victory Chorus was a natural fit in a city with an aging population, an appreciation for the arts and a strong history of music.

The Victory Fund received a grant through ACT on Alzheimer's. The chorus operates on a $100,000 budget that covers salaries, rent, legal costs and music, said executive director Kathy McNamara-Heimbach. Modeled after the nonprofit Giving Voices Initiative, volunteers complete special training for working with the singers and the music.

Bauman chose songs that were easy to adjust for their singers, and easy to pick up. They do all the adaptation they can, but it's really about what music does for "our spirits, our brains and our cardiovascular systems," she said.

Music therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety, enhance cognition and attention. Singing can help prompt specific memories that otherwise might have been forgotten. "And because music is also processed in part in a core part of the brain called the cerebellum, doctors say patients can retain the ability to dance and sing long after ability to talk has diminished," according to the Chicago Tribune.

While music and music therapy may not be a treatment of dementia, its use can aid social, emotional and cognitive skills and can decrease behavioral problems of individuals with dementia, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.

Virginia Kettleson hasn't had a dementia diagnosis, but her family noticed progressive changes about three years ago. She started repeating conversations, forgetting the names of objects.

Things got scary when Kettleson said someone was in her White Bear Lake home. Joynes and her family couldn't determine the true from the false, so she relocated closer to family.

Today in Duluth, Kettleson can walk a mile and dress herself. She might not know what socks are, but she remembers who her family is for now, Joynes said.

"Sometimes, when you're the caregiver, that's a lonely path," she added. The Victory Chorus is a great opportunity to network and share, and it's beneficial to see others be successful with the disease, Joynes said. And everyone is familiar and joins in to help.

During social hour after rehearsal, chorus members spontaneously sang "You Are My Sunshine." As Kettleson and her kin walked toward the rest of the choir members, she strutted a peppy walk to her daughter, singing the words, gaining a hug.

They live in fear of not knowing where they are, or they're second-guessing whether they're doing things correctly, said Joynes, reflecting on her experience with her mother.

"To be able to sing a song loud, and to know that it's the right words and it's the right notes, that's confirmation for her."

If you go

What: Victory Chorus performance

When: 2-3 p.m. May 5

Where: 835 W. College St.

Next up: Two more sessions of rehearsals and performances. Go to dementiafriendlyduluth.org/the-victory-chorus

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346
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