This performance — this chorus itself — Mary Ann East explained, was designed to “let everything melt away and go back to those happy, happy times, especially this time of year.”
East turned to the chorus and lifted her hands. Pianist Rachel Thompson lowered hers. And the Sentimental Journey Singers began to sing.
“Gonna take a sentimental journey. Gonna set my heart at ease . . . ”
Half of the 20 people onstage were in the early to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A woman named Jeanne Kelly had brought them together to sing.
Kelly is the founder of Encore Creativity for Older Adults, a nonprofit group created in 2007 to organize chorales for singers 55 and older. There are close to two dozen Encore choral groups in the Washington area and as far away as New York, Colorado and California. There are no auditions. All a person needs is a desire to sing.
Kelly (no relation to me) noticed that some of the singers were having trouble keeping up with the repertoire. Their short-term memories were slowly evaporating.
“What you don’t want to do is frustrate a singer,” Kelly told me. “Singing should be joyful.”
So Kelly launched the Sentimental Journey Singers. Since September, they’ve been meeting every Monday morning at Insight Memory Care Center, an adult day center in Fairfax. They receive sheet music, if they can read it, and lyric sheets if they can’t. They get a rehearsal CD, too, which has their part on it and with which they can practice.
They also get East, who directs several choirs around the area, including one of Encore’s other groups.
“This is a whole new venture for me,” East said. “And it’s been a wonderful learning experience, musically and just as a person.”
East’s biggest epiphany has been that people with Alzheimer’s or dementia “are not people to be afraid of. They are not people to brush aside. They are people we should engage and we can engage, just as we would any other person.”
There are some differences, of course.
“You have to kind of live in their reality,” East said. “You don’t argue with them. You talk with them and really engage them.”
Chorus members bring a care partner, usually a family member, who sits with them and also sings — in rehearsal and at Sunday’s debut performance.
“It’s a nice, pleasant hour and a half for those people together,” said Kelly. “Not all time together when you’re caring for an Alzheimer’s person is pleasant. It can be filled with drama.”
The rehearsals aren’t. They’re filled with song — and more. Halfway through each practice, pianist Thompson, a certified music therapist, leads the group in movement, music games and cognition exercises.
The brain is a complex and maddening thing, especially in its decline. But music — especially the music that spoke to us when we were young — buries itself deep.
“My mother was a pianist,” said Kelly. “She played her whole life.”
When she got older, Elsie Wolfe of Catasauqua, Pa., developed debilitating Alzheimer’s.
“She really didn’t know where she was,” Kelly said. But when she sat at the piano in the nursing home, she coaxed from its keys the music of Gershwin and Porter, each note as sturdy as a stone in a well-built foundation.
“Part of me is doing this for my mom,” Kelly said.
Said East: “Music is one of the last things to leave.”
And memories that are associated with music seem to stay, too.
“They may not remember going out to dinner two weeks ago,” said East, “but if you put on a Perry Como song, they will remember being at a USO dance. They can describe the room and what they were wearing and who they were with. It’s linked so closely to that song, the memory is able to stay.”
On Sunday, the Sentimental Journey Singers were dressed in black, like any self-respecting chorus. The women were accessorized with scarves of purple, the color of Alzheimer’s awareness.
Their harmonies were simpler than those they might once have sung but no less moving for that.
“Gonna make a sentimental journey,” they sang, “to renew old memories . . . ”
I hope you’ll consider being part of The Washington Post Helping Hand. That’s our annual fundraising drive for three worthy charities in our area: So Others Might Eat, N Street Village and Bright Beginnings.
You can learn about their work — and make an online contribution — by visiting posthelpinghand.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.