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As memories fade, music sustains at a choir pairing Key Chorale singers with community elders

Two rows of people, some in cowboy hats, sing with music in binders in front of them
Kerry Sheridan
The group is called "Where Are My Keys," and practices weekly at Jewish Family and Children Service of the Suncoast in Sarasota.

Key Chorale singers perform with the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Ballet and even the circus. But the singers say some of their most meaningful community work comes at these weekly practices, singing alongside older people with memory loss.

Bob Ferrell, 89, sings with all his heart alongside his wife Amy, 84. He has mild cognitive impairment, and tends to forget things. But not when he sings.

“He may not remember what he did 10 minutes ago, or who he talked to or what he said,” said Amy.

“But while we were singing, he seldom looked at the words. He had all this stuff memorized,” she marveled.

Bob doesn’t know how to explain it. With music, his attention span lengthens, and somehow, he just knows the words.

"Once I've learned the song, how would you forget it? You know, it's up there, hopefully,” he said with a laugh, pointing animatedly to his head. “And usually it is."

Amy and Bob Ferrell wear checkered shirts and sing songs. Amy holds a binder to read music. Bob, who has memory loss, doesn't need it.
Kerry Sheridan
Amy Ferrell holds a binder to read music as she sings. Next to her, her husband Bob, who has memory loss, doesn't need it.

The Ferrells are part of a community choir that pairs professional singers from Key Chorale — a symphonic choir that often performs with the Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Ballet — with people who have memory loss or dementia. Their caregivers can also take part.

The idea for the group, called “Where Are My Keys,” came from Key Chorale’s artistic director, 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," said Caulkins.

The memory loss choir came about in 2019. It’s one of several outreach choirs for Key Chorale. Another group helps people with Parkinson’s disease, allowing them to sing and strengthen their voices.

Keyboardist Glenn Priest plays for the choir, as Joe Caulkins stands at the mic and choir sits behind him
Kerry Sheridan
Key Chorale keyboardist Glenn Priest plays for the choir.

“I think too many times we marginalize people with Alzheimer's or dementia in a way that we shouldn't,” said Caulkins. “We should say, not what can't they do, but what can they do? What kinds of things will bring them joy and peace and give them something rewarding to do? Something to look forward to each week?”

At the group’s western and cowboy-themed performance in mid-December, 2023 at Jewish Family & Children's Service of the Suncoast in Sarasota, Caulkins conducted, and in between songs, he cracked jokes for the crowd.

"I find the best way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your pocket,” Caulkins said in a southern drawl, eliciting a mix of cackles and groans from the audience. “I think that's what John Denver did when he made this classic," he went on, introducing the 1971 hit “Country Roads.”

Wearing a cream-colored cowboy hat, vest and boots, conductor Joseph Caulkins stands at the head of the group
Kerry Sheridan
Wearing a cream-colored cowboy hat, vest and boots, Key Chorale artistic director Joseph Caulkins jokes that he's part-pirate, part-cowboy

After practicing tunes for about eight weeks, on performance day, the singers wear bandanas, checkered shirts, and cowboy boots. Key Chorale singers sit among the community members, offering smiles and encouragement as they sing songs like “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” and “Happy Trails.”

“In this group in particular, we've had people that haven't been communicating at all, and in one, two or three sessions, all of a sudden they start singing. A lot of those kinds of things happen. And it's just because music is so powerful,” said Caulkins.

Lynne Lash sings alto with Key Chorale, and sits next to a woman who doesn't sing but smiles broadly as she taps her hands on her thighs, and shakes a homemade instrument. It’s a plastic water bottle with corn kernels in it that sounds like a maraca.

“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 a wonderful therapeutic tool," said Lash, who worked as a music therapist in a psychiatric hospital for 25 years.

Lynne Lash, wearing a pink hat, sits next to a woman with memory loss who does not sing but taps her hands on her knees
Kerry Sheridan
Key Chorale alto singer Lynne Lash wears a pink cowboy hat, and sits by a woman who taps the beat to the music.

“It's really kind of for the moment, to put a smile on their face, bring a memory back, make them feel a part of a group because they tend to isolate,” Lash added. “This brings them into a group situation. And it's really a positive thing for them.”

And for her?
“Oh my gosh, the smiles on their faces, the laughter, the fun. Just watching them enjoy; it brings me great joy,” Lash said.

Singing groups like this have popped up across the country. 

Concetta Tomaino started one in New York several years ago, called “The Unforgettables.”

Tomaino was a close colleague of the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who dedicated his book about the power of music on the brain, “Musicophilia,” to her.

Tomaino is executive director at the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York. She began studying the effect of music on the aging brain in the late 1970s, when she played her accordion for people with advanced dementia, and saw some of them light up.

A woman with gray hair wearing a jean jacket reads music in a white binder on her lap
Kerry Sheridan
Singers in "Where Are My Keys?"

By now, “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," Tomaino said.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's or dementia, music therapy gives people a chance to interact on a normal level, with joy, and away from stigma. 

"To be part of something, that taps into their strengths, and allows their family member, their spouse, kid whatever, a chance to interact with them on a normal level, something that doesn't seem to stigmatize,” said Tomaino.

A blurry picture of binders and boots, the binder reading "On the Trail."
Kerry Sheridan
Some singers wear cowboy boots and hats to match the western theme of the songs.

The benefits are there, for both patients and caregivers. But choirs like these are not everywhere, just yet. 

Key Chorale's singing group for people with dementia or memory loss in Sarasota hopes to grow.

“This time around, Key Chorale along with JFCS is opening the opportunity to not only include members of the Thursday early onset dementia group, but also to the Wednesday SOS (senior outreach support group), and the Friday groups (Caregiver support group and Memory Café),” said Maria Vazquez, aging services coordinator at Jewish Family & Children’s Service of the Suncoast.

“In addition, all seniors who may be facing challenges such as loneliness and isolation or just want to be a part of a community, are welcome. “

The next session starts Jan. 18 from 12:45 to 1:45 at JFCS on Fruitville Road. For more information, contact mvazquez@jfcs-cares.org or 941-366-2224 ext. 123.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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