‘Alzheimer’s Stories’ choral work offers hope through music
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, incurable brain disorder that slowly robs the sufferer of memory and cognitive functions, eventually claiming the ability to carry out even simple tasks.
Yet, it’s been noted that music can sometimes evoke responses from Alzheimer’s patients when nothing else can.
“Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
For those with Alzheimer’s, music sometimes can relieve stress and reduce anxiety, depression and agitation.
American composer Robert Cohen explored this phenomenon — and offered a message of hope — in his 2009 oratorio, “Alzheimer’s Stories,” based on true stories from people whose lives have been affected by the disease.
The Westmoreland Choral Society will present Cohen’s work at 7:30 p.m. May 10 in the Seton Hill Performing Arts Center in Greensburg.
‘Very moving work’
Commissioned for the Susquehanna Valley Chorale, based in Lewisburg, Union County, “Alzheimer’s Stories” premiered in 2009 with conductor William Payn, a retired Bucknell University professor of music — and a friend of WCS musical director and conductor Thomas Octave.
Also an associate professor of music at Saint Vincent College, Octave and his students had worked on a service learning project with Laurel Faith in Action to provide residents of the Bethlen Communities’ Ligonier Gardens personal care home with music on headsets.
Octave’s students were inspired by Alive Inside Foundation, which offers media programs to the elderly, including those with dementia, to fight feelings of isolation and loneliness.
This experience and hearing “Alzheimer’s Stories” performed led Octave to want to bring it to local audiences.
“It’s a very moving work — by golly, it really is,” he says. “It’s so important to raise awareness of the disease and to tell this hopeful, hopeful story.”
As described by the composer, the work’s three movements loosely mimic the progression of Alzheimer’s:
• The Numbers — the discovery of the disease in 1901 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, present and future numbers of those afflicted, and conversation between the doctor and his first patient, Auguste Dieter.
• The Stories — a choral pastiche introducing a number of Alzheimer’s patients and their stories, told with pathos, poignancy and humor.
• For the Caregivers — a message of hope based on the recollection of a member of the Susquehanna group who visited a nursing home and was asked by a patient to “Sing anything.” The core of the libretto is:
“Find those you live in the dark and light. Help them through the days and nights.
“Keep faith. They sense what they cannot show. Love and music are the last things to go.
‘Beautiful tenor voice’
WCS board president Linda Stumpf has seen firsthand instances of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia who “sense what they cannot show.”
The Latrobe resident is a nurse, a nursing home supervisor and a professor in the nursing program at California University of Pennsylvania.
She recalls attending a hymn sing for residents of a care home.
“All of a sudden, this beautiful tenor voice rose above all the others,” she says. “I asked the activity director, ‘Who is that? Did you bring in a special guest?’ She identified one of the residents and said, ‘That’s him singing.’
“He was an Alzheimer’s patient. As soon as the music stopped, he sat down and withdrew again,” she says.
She saw something similar with another care home resident: “If you put her hands on the (piano) keys, she would play, but if you took them off, she would stop and not respond.
“It’s a known fact that music does connect with dementia residents,” she says. “Look at Glen Campbell.”
The prolific Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter died of Alzheimer’s in 2017 at 81.
“Even in the advanced stages, he was able to record that last album,” Stumpf says. “What’s enticing about this is that it reflects what’s going on deep inside the brain. Those pathways, for some reason, are still open.”
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, [email protected] or via Twitter .