Milwaukee’s Amazing Grace Choir is special, and not just for its talent. The ensemble is made up of people who suffer from early Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as well as their caregivers.
Family members in audiences are often moved beyond words. “They’re just in tears after seeing their loved one do a solo,” says Stephanie Houston, outreach specialist in the Milwaukee office of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute. “This is the same person who has difficulty just managing remembering what happened the day before.”
The choir is an outreach project of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, a center within the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW-Madison, and supported by the Helen Daniels Bader Fund of Bader Philanthropies.
In 2013, Dr. Mary Mittelman approached the organization to see if it would be interested in replicating her work with a choir at New York University. Her pilot program studies whether singing can improve mood in people with memory issues and also in their caregivers.
“We saw this as an opportunity that would really benefit the community,” recalls Houston. The Milwaukee choir was launched last August. So far it has around 15 members. It’s aimed primarily at people of color and underserved communities. African-Americans are at higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“The three things that we really wanted to focus on,” says Houston, “were definitely to empower the community through outreach and education, to connect elders of color with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia with supportive services, and to assist families making care decisions.”
The Milwaukee choir is not a research program, though the experience does have clinical value. Research has shown that the part of the brain most associated with music is tied to emotion, she says.
“That area is not as affected by the disease,” explains Houston. “So when it comes to people when they’re singing songs, the ability to recall the words is a lot easier. Not only that, one thing about music is it also stimulates movement. So we go from, not only are you using your language skills, and it’s uplifting your mood, but guess what? It gets those feet to tapping, those hands a-clapping, it gets you moving that body! They are fully engaged.”
Another benefit is that the choir’s work helps reduce stigma. “It challenges the belief that persons with Alzheimer’s and other dementia are so limited that they cannot learn new songs or learn new things,” she says. “This project actually defies that understanding.”
When first joining the choir, participants may have difficulty just being verbal. “What we’ve been seeing is that there has been an improvement in language. It has actually helped individuals to improve verbally.”
The choir also provides a way for caregivers to support their loved ones.
“It’s an activity they can share together,” says Houston. “They are actually making new memories.”
The Amazing Grace Choir will perform on June 20 at “Addressing Dementia as a Family Affair” held from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Lapham Park, 650 W. Reservoir Ave. The event is free but advance registration is required. For more information, call 414-289-5866.
The ensemble’s next season starts in August. For more information, call 414-219-5127 or visit wai.wisc.edu.