Exchange-Musical Memory Makers

Singers performed a piece during a Musical Memory Makers rehearsal at the Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud, Minn. (Dave Schwarz/St. Cloud Times via AP)

She had the group move their arms like swaying trees, relax their shoulders, “throw” their voices and sing “Make New Friends,” to loosen up at a rehearsal of the Musical Memory Makers choir.

Stay prompted the singers to conjure a memory of a song from their past and talk about it. One woman remembered singing “Jesus Loves Me” at a baptism.

“That music brings back that memory,” Stay told the choir. “That’s what music does.”

Music also brings people together, Stay said during a break while choir members chatted and sipped coffee.

Musical Memory Makers is one of a few art programs helping Central Minnesotans cope with memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University recently hosted Theatre Re, a British company, with a play that depicts the initial stages of dementia. The group met with community members and students on Nov. 8 to talk about “The Nature of Forgetting.”

Paramount Center for the Arts will continue its Paramount Art Sparks program for people with memory loss with a new source of funding. Participants study artwork then make art alongside their caregivers.

“It’s about connecting the head to the hand to the heart,” said Paramount Director of Community Outreach Solveig Anderson.

There’s still a need for more research into the benefits of art on those with memory loss, but there’s evidence in favor, according to a February 2013 National Endowment for the Arts report.

“Participation in arts interventions has been linked with improving cognitive function and memory, general self-esteem and well-being, as well as reducing stress and other common symptoms of dementia, such as aggression, agitation and apathy,” according to the report. “Some interventions promote social interaction, which has multiple psycho-social benefits.”

Musical Memory Makers launched in the spring with grant funding, said Laura Hood, St. Cloud’s aging services director. It wrapped up with a concert in May.

The program is back this fall and donor-funded this time.

Music is stored in a part of the brain that’s one of the last to deteriorate, Hood said. “It’s a cliché, but they say music is a universal language.”

Community involvement is important for people with dementia or cognitive impairment, she said. And in a choir, no one person stands out.

“It just is a very good fit to utilize a choir as a tool of building community and sharing community and community expression,” Hood said.

Members of the choir say they’re in it because it’s fun.

“I’m really old, and I’m trying to be young,” said LaVonne Rego, 87. “It’s keeping me young.”

Jill Nessa is in the choir and also played in the St. Cloud Municipal Band. In the band, she would see nursing home patients perk up to military tunes.

“Music makes them come alive,” Nessa said.

The number of people with memory loss will increase as the population ages.

About 100,000 Minnesotans have Alzheimer’s disease, a common form of dementia. Dementia is not a disease in and of itself. It’s a set of symptoms characterized by memory loss and cognitive decline.

To get a sense of what that feels like, Theater Re worked with a neuroscientist to accurately portray memory and amnesia on the stage in the play “The Nature of Forgetting.”

“It’s a program that invites us to have greater compassion, and it also invites us to understand,” said Tanya Gertz, executive director of fine arts programming for St. Benedict’s and St. John’s.

“It is a beautiful piece of theater,” Gertz said. “Everyone talks about how life-affirming it is.”

Art can be amazing in a “transactional way,” Gertz said. Beyond that, some experiences open up new understandings of ourselves and ourselves in the world.

Anderson has been involved in Art Sparks as a participant, a teacher and the Paramount’s outreach director.

It’s been around since 2016 and renewed this year with funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board.

In each class a teacher prompts participants to talk about a piece of art as a group before working on individual art projects, Anderson said. They’ve sewn glasses cases, made pottery and seed mosaics, worked with watercolors and more.

“Many say, ‘I’m not an artist. I can’t do this,’” Anderson said. They eventually come around.

“It draws from who you’ve been and where you’ve been,” she said. “It’s a time to learn and experiment.”

She participated with her parent, who would stay up later on the day of Art Sparks because it was such a stimulating experience, Anderson said.

Susan Smith signed up in one of the first Art Sparks sessions with her significant other, Larry Adey, who’s diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia.

At first, he felt kind of bashful, Smith said. But the volunteers helped him and loved him.

Now art helps the two communicate when Larry’s voice or thoughts aren’t clear, Smith said.

Neither of them were very artsy, she said. They were into sports. And both are former psychologists.

Smith got into pottery and activities at the Paramount, then she signed up for Art Sparks with Larry. Since then, Larry has joined the Musical Memory Markers.

He had a period when he wasn’t very active and didn’t sing much, but now he walks the dog, Smith said. “Especially since Larry has taken the classes, especially the memory choir, he sings again.”