Singing (and living) in the moment

Clyde woke up at 3:30 in the morning, too excited to sleep. Twelve weeks of rehearsals had led up to this day. It was December 16 when the In-Harmony Choir, a music therapy for Alzheimer’s collaboration with Greater Cincinnati Alzheimer’s Association, would be performing their holiday concert.

It had been over 60 years since Clyde had sung in front of an audience as a member of his high school’s quartet. Today, he would sing alongside his daughter, Diane, and 15 other choir members dressed in festive accessories they picked to celebrate the season.

Their practice and preparation, led by Melodic Connections’ Jordan Toney, would culminate in an uplifting concert, filled with meaningful songs they had chosen from their past. Because of Alzheimer’s affect on short-term memory, many might soon lose the memory of their performance, so it was a time to live in the moment – and they did.

The In-Harmony Choir began about four years ago as a partnership between Melodic Connections and the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati.  The group of about 20 singers include father-daughter pair Clyde and Diane, Clint and his wife Martha, and Mark and his caregiver Cheri.  Singers Rose and Ruth have been members since the beginning. Friends for 25 years, they attend rehearsals at Knox Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park each week. Ruth spoke fondly of her friend, “Rose used to play guitar and she loves to sing. She doesn’t sing along as much as she used to, but it’s soothing for her to be here and surrounded by others. There’s a lot of cheerfulness. It’s a happy time.” Experts agree that music therapy for Alzheimer’s is a powerful tool.

On the day of the concert, the room was filled with friends and family who had gathered for the event. With the holiday season in full swing, the choir chose to wear festive accessories. They took their places on the stage and opened their songbooks, which held holiday favorites like “White Christmas” but also traditional favorites such as “Morning Has Broken” and “Que Sera, Sera.” Under each song were names of the members who had chosen it. Ruth and Rose’s song was “Sing” by the Carpenters, while Clyde and Diane selected “Lean On Me.”

Twelve weeks prior, the choir’s director Jordan Toney, a Music Therapist at Melodic Connections, had an idea. Drawing upon her recent certification in Trauma Responsive Care with other staff at Melodic Connections, she wanted to amplify each individual’s voice in the experience. She asked each member to complete a timeline, writing down songs from their past that held special meaning.  “Jordan approaches being with our group as an inclusive setting, where we’re part of the decision-making process,” said Ruth.

In 2019, the staff at Melodic Connections became certified in Trauma Responsive Care.  Each staff member received a total of 30 hours of training and 12 hours of consultation for the certification. This Impact Story is an example of how Melodic Connections is putting the work into practice.

Below, Jordan talks further about the intention behind this season’s concert and how her work with In-Harmony is providing a way for those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers to connect and build relationships.

Music Therapy for Alzheimer’s disease promotes resilience

I think that sometimes the simplest things can provide for a sense of safety and belonging in challenging times. I started by having choir members fill out a timeline of important songs from their lives, and we built the performance around that timeline. It was my way of having them contribute and be part of the ritual of our rehearsing and concert.

In rehearsal I would remind them, “We’re practicing this song because it’s important to Ruth or this song is important to Clyde.” I think by having them pick songs and then me reinforce and say each week, “We’re doing this because you picked it. It’s your choice and your experiences matter,” I think it’s made them feel more valued. It felt more meaningful.

I also ask their input. I’ll ask, “Where do you think we take a breath?” I ask for feedback because it’s their group. We practice “Power with”- where we all make these decisions together.

Promotes feelings of safety and belonging

Our goal is to create a safe space, so everyone feels they belong – they are valued and can contribute. We brought in all the comforting rituals of choir life – warm ups, sight reading, lyric sheets and harmonizing. I’m always trying to challenge them a little bit but make sure they are comfortable and feel they are being successful.

We have particular songs we do every week that they’ve attached to. At the end of the concert, we sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” It’s our ritual and good-bye song at rehearsals,  so it gave us a comforting way to end the concert as well. Safety is created in the familiarity – of both the people, the space, and the songs.

Also, the church provides a great space for us to use the choir room, where’s there’s a piano, whiteboard and nice chairs. We are a cohesive group physically. That helps create physical safety but there’s also emotional safety because they feel comfortable to share with the group. I’ve noticed them greeting each other, getting each other binders, or saying, “Hey, come sit by us.” They’re really connecting with each other in that space.

Helps to overcome isolation of Alzheimer’s

This time of life can be so isolating, both for the person affected by the disease, and their caregivers. They can lose their sense of connection to others. We found that 12 weeks of singing together counteracted that. In our survey, we saw a big increase in answers to questions like, “I feel like my opinions and ideas are valued by others.”  They come to the group every week, they enjoy it and know it’s a safe space – it creates a sense of belonging.

Finding Support and Connections

We had a choir member who was too ill to join this session, and he passed away a few weeks before the concert. It was hard for everyone. He loved music so much. His caregiver came to rehearsal the next week. We created a safe place with this group where she could mourn and get support from the choir. She came to the concert too. That was impactful. The choir is for the caregivers too – it’s just as important to them.

It’s really as much about connections as it is about the music. Clint is a new member and comes with his wife Martha. They ride with Paul and Sue.  Clint greets everyone at the door. Clint and Clyde connect because they are both veterans.

It’s wonderful to see new friendships being formed and the support they give each other.