Duluth choir helps people with dementia connect with music

A Duluth chorus focused on helping people living with dementia returns for its first concert since the pandemic.

Group of people hold their arms up.
Members of the Victory Chorus move their hands and arms in time with the music during rehearsal Wednesday in the Benedictine Health Center chapel.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — After a nearly two-year hiatus, Duluth's dementia-friendly chorus is ready to sing again.

The Victory Chorus is a pair of choirs that welcome people living with dementia or other cognitive issues, their care partners and community volunteers to come together to sing songs such as "Happy Together" by the Turtles, "Lean on Me" by Bill Withers and "A Little Help from my Friends" by the Beatles.

People exchanging high fives.
Victory Chorus members, including Marty Angell, foreground, from left, Sandy Grandmaison, Jerry Kwako and Tony Montez interact after performing a song during rehearsal Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"There's just so much joy that comes with singing together," said music director Beth Kaiser. "Rita (a chorus member) said that earlier too. It's the joy and the energy that I love and appreciate."

The chorus started by an a branch of Dementia Friendly Duluth, a collaborative effort between organizations intended to make Duluth a more welcoming community for people living with dementia and their caregivers. It was modeled after a chorus in the Twin Cities that works with people living with Alzheimer's disease.

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"The idea behind a choir for people living with dementia is to let the music help stimulate their brains," Victory Chorus program director Candy Winkler said. "There have been studies that show that music lights up people's brains in a totally unique way. In fact, we've even had people who are otherwise nonverbal, but could still come and sing and read notes. It's pretty magical to see."


Volunteer singer Laura Laaksonen said the musical atmosphere of the chorus helped her mother as she dealt with dementia before her death last spring.

A woman helps a man with a three-ring binder.
Laura Laaksonen helps Clark Bennett find the next song during a Victory Chorus rehearsal Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"By the time we were coming, her short-term memory was very short. She didn't always know where we were or what we were doing," Laaksonen said. "But the minute the music started, everything was different. Just being so immersed in a musical setting seemed to really open up her mind in a good way."

After her mother, died Laaksonen kept coming to volunteer with the group because she wanted to help others find a similar experience as she had with her mother.

"It's such an inclusive place," she said. "It's just so good for the soul to sing with the group. I come here and it doesn't matter what's happened in my day or week, I leave with a smile on my face."

A couple sings in a chorus.
Bobbi and Chuck Stoetzel rehearse with Victory Chorus on Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The chorus was ready to perform in March 2020. Then the pandemic hit the U.S. and everything was shuttered and the third ever Victory Chorus concert had to be canceled.

"We had a concert planned for March 15 and it had to be canceled," Winkler said. "We ended up not being able to meet again like this until this fall."

In the meantime, the chorus did have a small group of singers who continued to visit facilities like the Westwood Benedictine Health center's Adult Day Services in Duluth for sing-alongs.

"We wanted to keep the energy going a bit so that when we were able to sing together again we weren't totally starting over," Winkler said. "Though we did lose almost all of our original members through the pandemic, not necessarily to COVID, but other reasons."


Woman conducting a chorus.
Beth Kaiser conducts the Victory Chorus while Brian Kapp plays a piano Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

This fall the chorus returned in double force with a chorus at the Benedictine on Wednesdays and a community chorus at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth on Sundays.

"We wanted to give people more opportunities to join us," Winkler said. "And it's also a nice opportunity for socialization, something that can be difficult with dementia and other cognitive issues. There's a stigma attached to dementia, it's a very isolating disease and we try to do everything we can to reduce that stigma and let people meet."

The concert is at 2 p.m. Sunday at Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 835 W. College St., Duluth. Masks are required to help protect the singers.

Related Topics: DULUTHMUSIC
Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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