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A Florida choir helps people with dementia find connection through music

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When people age and begin to lose their memory, they can become isolated or lose touch with community and family. As Kerry Sheridan of member station WUSF reports, music can help build those connections again. She visited a special choir in Sarasota, Fla., which pairs professional singers with people who have dementia.

WHERE ARE MY KEYS: (Singing) Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam...

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: These singers wear bandanas, checkered shirts and cowboy boots for this choral performance at a community center. About half are people who have some form of dementia. The other half are professional singers with Key Chorale. For all of them, Alzheimer's is personal.

JOSEPH CAULKINS: My mother-in-law has Alzheimer's dementia. My grandfather did. And I know how important music is in their lives and how it can kind of unlock portals that might be closed.

SHERIDAN: That's Joseph Caulkins, artistic director of Key Chorale. This chorus is part of a support group for people with memory loss. It's called Where Are My Keys. And as conductor, Caulkins has fun with it. They've been practicing tunes with a Western theme for this performance. He hams it up for the audience in between songs.

CAULKINS: I find the best way to double your money is to fold it in half, put it back in your pocket.

(LAUGHTER)

CAULKINS: I think that's what John Denver did when he made this classic.

SHERIDAN: Caulkins leads weekly practice sessions that culminate in a performance about every two months.

WHERE ARE MY KEYS: (Singing) Almost heaven, West Virginia.

SHERIDAN: In the middle row sit Bob and Amy Farrell. They've been singing together for about six decades. Bob is 89 now and has mild cognitive impairment. His wife, Amy, is 84. She's a retired teacher, plays violin and sang in many musicals.

AMY FARRELL: And the neat thing is Bob loves to sing, too. And he remembers the words of songs. He may not remember what he did 10 minutes ago or who he talked to or what he said or some of the conversation. But if you noticed, while we were singing, he seldom looked at the words. He had all the stuff memorized. Me - I'm looking at the words and looking at the conductor, but it's really interesting the way the memory works. You just never know.

SHERIDAN: Bob says somehow, he just knows the words.

BOB FARRELL: Once I've learned the song, you don't - how could you forget it? Because, you know, it's up there, hopefully (laughter). And usually, it is.

WHERE ARE MY KEYS: (Singing) The stars at night are big and bright (clapping) deep in the heart of Texas.

SHERIDAN: Lynne Lash sings alto with key chorale. She is paired with a woman who doesn't sing but smiles broadly as she shakes a homemade instrument.

LYNNE LASH: It's a plastic water bottle with corn kernels in it and amazingly sounds like a maraca.

SHERIDAN: Lash is not only a singer but worked as a music therapist in a psychiatric hospital for 25 years.

LASH: Music sparks something in all of us, so when I see these folks singing, it brings them to some time in their lives. And sometimes, you can even get them talking about that time. So music is wonderful as a therapeutic tool.

WHERE ARE MY KEYS: (Singing) ...Of Texas.

(APPLAUSE)

SHERIDAN: Singing groups like this have popped up across the country. Research shows music therapy may help people with dementia sustain brain function for longer. It may also build social connections and may even allow new skills to be learned. Concetta Tomaino is executive director at the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York. She has been studying the power of music on the aging brain since the late 1970s, when she played her accordion for people with advanced dementia. By now, she says...

CONCETTA TOMAINO: It should be. Common practice to use personalized, familiar music to not only engage and be able to connect with people but to give them a chance to sustain function for a longer period of time, which some of my early research had actually shown.

SHERIDAN: While there's no cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, Tomaino says music therapy, whether singing or playing instruments, gives people a chance to interact on a normal level and with joy. For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Sarasota, Fla.

WHERE ARE MY KEYS: (Singing) Happy trails to you till we meet again.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kerry Sheridan
Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.