Music has been a part of the Respite Care Ministry since it first started nearly four years ago at First United Methodist Church in Dothan.

Along with games, crafts and exercise, time has always been set aside for music, whether the participants — now referred to as “friends” with dementia — sing together or listen to a guest musician. And music time has always been a favorite for both the friends and the volunteers who work with the Respite Care Ministry.

“Music is such an equalizer,” said Katie Holland, director of the Respite Care Ministry. “We’ve seen what the studies have said about music and dementia.”

But the newly-formed Heart to Heart Choir has another purpose — create an activity that those with dementia and their caregivers can still do together.

The choir began rehearsals in late September to prepare for its first performance Dec. 8 at First United Methodist. The performance will be a Christmas concert of classic holiday songs and hymns.

The inspiration for the Heart to Heart Choir was the Giving Voice Chorus in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which started in 2014 through the efforts of two women who had cared for parents with dementia and in collaboration with MacPhail Center for Music. A second Giving Voice chorus was launched in 2016 in St. Paul. Today, there are similar choruses around the U.S. as well as in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Research indicates that music memory stays with those with Alzheimer’s disease and that singing or listening to it can have emotional and behavioral benefits for those with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

Caregivers face challenges in taking care of those with dementia, and too often everyday tasks can create conflict and stress. The choir gives caregivers a stress-free activity they can enjoy with their loved ones.

“Trying to give them medication, trying to feed them their meals, trying to get them dressed, trying to get them out the door — for the most part when you become a caregiver, that interaction is conflict,” Holland said. “We just found there was not enough things for them to do together to just have some fun and just something for them to spend time together.”

The choir’s weekly rehearsals, held on Wednesdays, have been attended by about 50 people — and not always the same 50 people as some participants can’t make every Wednesday rehearsal. The choir is even open to those who are not enrolled in the Respite Care Ministry program and to pretty much anyone who feels called to sing with the choir.

“Wednesday has become a very special day,” Holland said. “We weren’t prepared for how much we all enjoy that … nobody likes to miss choir.”

Fortunately for Holland, she had respite volunteer John Mark Wilson, with experience directing music at Dothan’s First Presbyterian Church.

Wilson said the choir is a fun activity for both caregivers and their loved ones with dementia.

“It enables them to still be a participant, to give themselves and to share,” he said.

First United Methodist Church created the Respite Care Ministry as a way to offer caregivers a break while providing a safe environment for their loved ones still in the early stages of dementia. The program is open four days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It’s set up in a way that volunteers can’t always be identified among those with dementia. The program has between 10 and 17 “friends” each day.

Holland said they have seen in choir rehearsals that Alzheimer’s and dementia hasn’t stripped the love of music.

“It speaks to them; it’s inside, they remember the words — the rhythm stays until the end, too,” Holland said. “They’re just enjoying the moment. As long as we play the piano and as long as John Mark will do that, they’re captivated.”

If you can’t sing with them, give them an audience on Dec. 8, Holland said.

Many of the respite ministry’s “friends” are people who once liked to do things for others. Dementia, Holland said, didn’t change that desire, and performing music is something they can do for others. She hopes those who attend see that in the choir.

“I hope they understand that there is life with dementia, that they see the joy on their faces when they sing and they can see the connections that music helps them form,” Holland said. “I hope somehow that they can see that it’s a gift to be able to share that with the community for them. That’s something they can do; it’s something that gives them purpose — to be able to sing and have a performance for someone.”

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