The Musical Minds Choir uses song to lift the spirits and stimulate the memories of those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
At rehearsals for the Musical Minds Choir, laughter fills the air almost as often as song.
Singers enthusiastically belt out familiar tunes, happily clap along to upbeat songs, and occasionally dance in the aisles. Choir director Kevin Harris keeps the energy level high with his piano playing and song leading, and the mood stays light with his sense of humor.
Musical Minds, an arts and wellness program offered by Central Florida Community Arts (CFCArts), is not your typical community choir. This singing group is designed for adults in the early stages of memory loss, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, and for their caregivers. The choir meets most Wednesday mornings at One Senior Place in Altamonte Springs.
“We are a community-building organization, and we use arts as the vehicle,” Kevin says about CFCArts. “Yes, we have this choir; We sing together; We laugh together. But I’m more interested in community, especially with this specific demographic and journey.”
The Musical Minds playlist features songs from the 1920s to the 1970s, with tunes that range from spiritual to secular to patriotic. The idea is to tap into participants’ long-term memories by singing well-known songs from their past.
Some songs, such as “Amazing Grace,” are inspiring. Others are peppy, including “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window,” “Happy Together,” and “Hello, Dolly!”
Music stimulates many different areas of the brain, says David Huckabee, vice president of programs for the Central and North Florida Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. For someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, he says, music can help with communication, mood, and behavior. And, music may have some effect on recall.
“Besides the cognitive stimulation of a program such as Musical Minds, there is the added benefit of social interaction and a sense of community,” David says.
Nancy and Dennis Dulniak of Oviedo can vouch for that. They are charter members of the choir, which was launched in 2015. Dennis says, for people who are dealing with dementia – including his wife – it’s important to have consistent activities. Musical Minds provides that consistency in a non-threatening, positive environment.
“Nancy gets the socialization – the familiar faces, the friendly hugs, and the smiles,” says Dennis, and she’s not the only one. “I also receive the friendship, the love, the smiles, the hugs. It’s just an uplifting experience.”
Nancy’s favorite song in the choir’s repertoire is “God Bless America,” which Kevin plays as the closing number. Although Nancy’s only other singing experience is with her church congregation, she knows that’s not important.
“Maybe we can’t really sing, but we all do what we can do,” she says. “We do our best.”
Joshua Vickery, founder and executive director of CFCArts, says the choir has helped strengthen the relationship between those with dementia and the people who care for them.
“Musical Minds is extremely impactful on the human brain and body, as we see people who are non-responsive come to life through the power of music,” Joshua says. “We love seeing the effects of music on the brain as memories are resurrected.”
Lake Mary residents Diane Burnell and her father, Chris Pappas, recently visited the choir for the first time and were quite impressed with the program.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” says Diane, adding that music has a calming effect on her father, who has dementia.
Although Chris is new to Musical Minds, he was a member of a barbershop chorus in Ohio for 25 years. Singing in a group setting has brought him tremendous joy for much of his life.
“For dad, programs like this help to bring him to a point of memory where he feels connected and useful,” Diane says. “It’s like he’s back to a point where he feels whole.”
The Musical Minds Choir, which has about 65 members, meets from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. most Wednesdays at One Senior Place, 715 Douglas Avenue in Altamonte Springs. The choir takes a few weeks off here and there during the year. Participants don’t have to be experienced singers, and there is no cost to join.
To learn more, call 407-937-1800, email MusicalMinds@CFCArts.com, or just stop by for a visit. Drop-ins are welcome. For details about Central Florida Community Arts, a nonprofit organization, visit CFCArts.com.
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