Bend choir helps Alzheimer’s patients

Video: Singing, rehearsal combats self-isolation in early stages

By Mac McLean / The Bulletin / @agingbeat


Becky Smith held her hand up to her chest and moved it slowly up and down as she guided the Central Oregon Sing Here Now choir through a rendition of Joe Raposo’s classic “Sing (Sing A Song).”

“Believe in yourself,” she told the choir, which consists almost exclusively of people who have early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, and their caregivers. “Believe in yourself and produce some sound.”

Originally created by the Alzheimer’s Association’s Oregon Chapter and Earthtones Music Therapy Services in Portland in 2011, Sing Here Now gives these people an opportunity for social interaction where they can express themselves in a comfortable environment.

The idea

The program’s directors say this opportunity is vital for people who have early stage dementia because it helps boost their confidence, combat the stigma associated with their condition and prepare them for the steep decline in their cognitive abilities that lies just over the horizon when their symptoms get worse (see “Early stage programs”).

Members of Smith’s choir — which is the first Sing Here Now choir to be set up outside the Portland area — have spent the past four weeks practicing “Sing (Sing A Song)” as they get ready for their first public performance, at the Cascade School of Music’s Bend campus May 13.

“We’ve got a ways to go but we’ll get there,” said Nate Lund, who joined the chorus with his wife, K.T. Lund, as part of a way to help manage her dementia.

The decline

Nate Lund said that about a year and a half ago, his wife started suffering from a terrible pain near her ear and jaw that simply wouldn’t go away.

Her doctor ordered an MRI after trying several other things that did not work, he said, and when the results of this scan came back, it showed some brain damage that was consistent with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re taking it as it comes,” Lund said as he talked about his wife’s May 2013 diagnosis.

He said it was only after the MRI that he realized his wife was also having problems remembering things such as the date and the day of the week. He didn’t think anything about these brief memory lapses at first, but later realized that they were the direct result of her condition.

When people develop Alzheimer’s disease, they may struggle to think of familiar words or remember where they placed certain objects. These short-term memory lapses get worse as the disease progresses, and patients may start forgetting parts of their personal history, details their address and phone number and the name of their spouse or caregiver.

Eventually, the damage done to cognitive abilities gets so severe that sufferers may need help performing a number of tasks most people take for granted. They lose control of their bodily functions — such as sitting upright, smiling and swallowing — when the disease enters its final stages and essentially wither away and die.

“For many people, there’s an awareness of this decline and that carries its own set of issues,” said Dawn Iwamasa, the Oregon chapter’s early-stage program coordinator and the creator of the Sing Here Now program.

Iwamasa said the fear of what’s coming and of what people might think as symptoms start manifesting often cause people with early-stage dementia to enter a state of isolation, breaking off contact with friends, family members and the outside world.

Iwamasa said this isolation can quickly lead to depression. It also increases stress and prevents patients from getting help at a time they may need it the most, she said.

“If I was ever diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my first reaction would be to hide,” said Smith, the choir director. “(But this choir has) a way of bringing people out in an environment that’s safe for them.”

The choir

The Oregon Alzheimer’s Association chapter came up with a way to counteract this isolation when it tweaked Memories in the Making — a popular watercolor workshop program designed to help people who have late-stage dementia — to fit the needs of someone who was recently diagnosed with the disease and still in its early stages.

“We know that participation in the creative process can be very powerful,” Iwamasa said, explaining one of the first things she saw from her chapter’s early Memories in the Making workshops was a sense of accomplishment participants experienced when they completed a work of art. This boosted the participants’ confidence and helped fight the stigma associated with the disease — they were creative, they were more than just a dementia patient.

Iwamasa said the workshops also proved to be valuable because they gave the program’s participants and their caregivers a chance to interact with other people who had dementia and their caregivers. This interaction let them exchange ideas and resources, she said, and at the very least helped them realize that they were not alone.

But Memories in the Making wasn’t a perfect solution, Iwamasa said. A lot of people shied away from the program because they didn’t think they had any artistic abilities or because they were simply not interested in painting.

“K.T. felt like she wasn’t a good artist,” Nate Lund said, explaining why his wife didn’t like the Memories in the Making workshops when she took part in them this past winter. “But she really enjoyed the social interaction.”

Hoping to build upon the initial success she had seen with Memories in the Making, Iwamasa started looking for music-centered therapy programs when she came across the Tremble Clefs — an Arizona-based choir for people who have Parkinson’s disease — and decided to build on that idea.

She teamed up with the American Music Therapy Association and launched the first Sing Here Now choir in Portland during the fall of 2011. The Oregon chapter decided to expand this program by setting up a second Sing Here Now choir in Beaverton last spring and started laying the groundwork to create choirs outside the Portland area this fall as it expanded the services it offered from its regional offices in Eugene, Medford and Bend.

“People have been asking for them at our regional offices for quite some time,” Iwamasa said, explaining she chose Central Oregon as the site for the first non-Portland Sing Here Now choir because people like Smith, a Bend harpist and music teacher, had already stepped up to manage it.

Both Nate and K.T. Lund are grateful they’ve had the opportunity to take part in Sing Here Now’s first set of rehearsals and can sing in its first public performance two weeks from now.

K.T. Lund said the club “is so low key” and that she really appreciates there isn’t someone always correcting her whenever she missed a note or came off a little flat. She said she enjoys the Sing Here Now rehearsals so much that she’s brining friends along with her in hopes their voices will add to the group.

“Singing really brings people out in a way that other things don’t,” said Nate Lund, who enjoys watching the choir’s members come alive more than anything else. “In about five minutes after our first rehearsal everybody was rocking a little bit.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,

mmclean@bendbulletin.com

This article has been corrected. The original version omitted the co-creator or the original Sing Here Now chorus and misspelled Dawn Iwamasa’s last name. The Bulletin regrets the errors.

Early-stage programs

The Alzheimer’s Association runs three programs designed to help people who have early-stage dementia out of its Central Oregon regional office:

• Early-stage support group: Support group meets on the second Wednesday of each month (starting May 14) from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the regional office (777 Wall St., Suite 104, Bend). Contact: Julia Luck, 503-416-0205.

• Memories in the Making: The regional office will start offering its second round of Memories in the Making workshops — where people with early-stage dementia produce watercolor paintings and other works of art — in June. Contact: Kristina Barragan, 541-317-3977.

• Sing Here Now: The Central Oregon Sing Here Now choir has already started its first set of rehearsals and will give its first public performance at the Cascade School of Music (200 N.W. Pacific Park Lane, Bend) from 11 a.m. to noon May 13. Contact: Kristina Barragan, 541-317-3977.