By Dimitra Lavrakas
For Senior Voice 

Alzheimer's chorus brings together music and the mind


November 1, 2019

Courtesy Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska

"Voices of the Last Frontier," a chorus made up of people with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers, rehearses earlier this fall. The chorus will perform at the Loussac Library Wilda Marston Theater in Anchorage on Nov. 22, 1:30 p.m.

Those with dementia find their world diminished, but they don't know that. It is their caretakers and loved ones who see the change and long for the time when they were present. It is a hard experience, but sadly one that oftentimes comes with aging.

There's a song in the air

The Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska is trying out an approach that has been successful elsewhere - a chorus comprised of dementia patients and their caregivers they are calling "Voices of the Last Frontier."

And in a way, dementia and Alzheimer's are the last frontier as scientists search for a cure that afflicts so many in their later years.

"The 30-member chorus is made up of those with dementia and their caretakers, have been practicing very hard for their November debut," said Ann Farris, education specialist with Alzheimer's Resource.

She is co-conductor with a well-known director working with them who has directed the music for a number of Broadway shows, but prefers his name not to be revealed and instead wants the focus to be on the singers.

Also participating is Ernestine Dillard, a fantastic soprano, vocal coach and retired nurse, who will sing a song with the chorus that she wrote. She is an inductee of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and may be best known for her 1995 performance of the "God Bless America" medley that closed the Oklahoma City Memorial Service for the victims of the Murrah Building bombing. Dillard has sung for three presidents, received a multitude of awards.

"We used the model of the Giving Voices Chorus Initiative of the twin city area of Saint Paul and Minneapolis," Farris said. "It gives a model on how to get the project off the ground and the logistics.

"There's time to rehearse and then time to socialize, where they can share stories about living with dementia."

According to Giving Voice Initiative, it hopes its idea will lead to a worldwide movement that helps people with Alzheimer's and their care partners live better lives and benefit their communities through singing together.

Many benefits

A recent study shows that dementia and Alzheimer's patients can recall memories and emotions, and have enhanced mental performance after singing classic hits and show tunes from movies and musicals - a breakthrough in understanding how music affects those with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Researchers determined the effect music has on dementia patients, by leading half of the participants through selected songs while the other half listened to the music being played. After the musical treatment, all participants took cognitive ability and life satisfaction tests, which showed how participants scored significantly better when being lead through songs, rather than just listening.

"It's inspiring and invigorating and it's clear when we rehearse that it's made an impact on everyone attending," Farris said.

The premier concert of Voices of the Last Frontier will be on Friday, Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m. in the Z.J. Loussac Public Library's Wilda Marston Theatre with a reception to follow.

Tickets are $12 general public, $10 seniors, and can be purchased at Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska's office, 1750 Abbott Rd., online at, or at the door on the day of the event.

Thanks to the 100+ Women Who Care that chose the chorus as their quarterly recipient of funds and gave $12,000 to start this project.

How music boosts brain activity

Here are five reasons why researchers believe that music boosts brain activity:

1. Music evokes emotions that bring memories. Music can evoke emotion in even the most advanced of Alzheimer's patients. Neurologist Oliver Sacks says that, "Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory... it brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can." By pairing music with every day activities, patients can develop a rhythm that helps them to the recall the memory of that activity, improving cognitive ability over time.

2. Musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in dementia patients. Linda Maguire, lead author on the study wrote, "Musical aptitude and music appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in patients with Alzheimer's." Because these two abilities remain long after other abilities have passed, music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and reach the person.

3. Music can bring emotional and physical closeness. In the later stages of dementia, patients often lose the ability to share emotions with caregivers. Through music, as long as they are ambulatory, they can often dance. Dancing can lead to hugs, kisses and touching, which brings security and memories.

Courtesy Alzheimer's Resource of Alaska

Music and singing provide powerful benefits to people with Alzheimer's, studies confirm.

4. Singing is engaging. The singing sessions in the study engaged more than just the brain and the area related to singing. As singing activated the left side of the brain, listening to music sparked activity in the right and watching the class activated visual areas of the brain. With so much of the brain being stimulated, the patients were exercising more mind power than usual.

5. Music can shift mood, manage stress and stimulate positive interactions.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has an entire web page dedicated to music therapy in Alzheimer's patients. They say that, "When used appropriately, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions, facilitate cognitive function and coordinate motor movements." This is because music requires little to no mental processing, so singing music does not require the cognitive function that is not present in most dementia patients.

For more information about how music "awakens" Alzheimer’s patients, visit


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