The Joyful Hearts Choir: music, memory and meaning

Hearing a group of older adults in their late 70’s to 100 years old singing old standard songs is heartwarming.  The performance becomes even more touching when you discover that many of the singers suffer from memory loss.

Music is a well-known therapeutic tool, helping relieve stress and improve mood. Now the Joyful Hearts Senior Memory Choir in Pasadena, CA is proving how singing together can help older adults mitigate memory loss.

This innovative choir consists of 40 participants, 25 of whom  are residents of Summer House, the memory care neighborhood at Front Porch Villa Gardens Retirement Community. Singers with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are joined by 15 volunteer “buddies,” who are residents from the community’s assisted living area or by family members; two caregivers sing along, too.

From Plan to Reality

Bonnie Stover, chorus spokesperson and director of volunteer services for Front Porch, knew from scientific research that melodies and lyrics remain in the brain even when memory loss occurs. That was the genesis of the Joyful Hearts.

Stover consulted with the Villa Gardens’ staff to determine that twice weekly two hour sessions were best – the goals were to not tire the residents and proceed at a relaxed pace, with enough time for residents and volunteers to socialize and enjoy a healthy snack together. Choir members offer input about songs, with musicals, patriotic and campfire songs the most popular, such as “Amazing Grace,” “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” “Kumbaya” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

“This program was designed to be fun. It’s about enjoying music together, and it levels the playing field amongst those residents with dementia and those without. I open and close each rehearsal emphasizing the idea we’re perfect just the way we are,” Stover explains.

Cordula Dick-Muehlke, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, provides training for all volunteers and staff about how to best interact amongst people with memory impairment.  Their professional piano accompanist, Philip Mabunga, acts as choir director.

Benefits of Being in the Choir

 Research has shown listening to music can be “medicine for your mind” according to John Hopkins School of Medicine .  Music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure and pain, and improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness and memory.

Stover has witnessed positive changes in the attitudes and facial expressions of the Joyful Heart participants. “They smile, get excited and say, ‘Oh good, we’re going to sing!’” Some members stop using songbooks. Others, who may not be singing out loud, show their engagement through tapping their fingers or toes to the beat.

Family members have noticed the benefits as well. Music can trigger vivid memories. One daughter, who thought she knew everything about her mother’s life, was shocked when her mother shared a story from her childhood she’d never told her before. The memory was triggered by one of the songs sung in rehearsal.  As people with dementia decline, it becomes more difficult for families to communicate, and sharing favorite music is a meaningful, win-win solution.

Another chorus member’s family shared how their mother, Alice, was taken to the emergency room, but her words came out jumbled speaking with the ER staff.  When Alice began to sing what she wanted to convey, she was able to communicate her condition with the medical staff.

Socialization is an automatic benefit of joining the Joyful Hearts. The residents get to know each other, the volunteers and the staff well.  For the holiday recital in December, they were joined by the L.A. Young Ambassadors, 15 children from second grade through junior high.  Many older adults rarely get to interact with children, and the Young Ambassadors adds an additional dimension beyond the concerts into the residents’ lives.

Volunteers get as much from participating as the residents do, if not more. “I was really in denial about people who had some form of dementia, didn’t want to think about it, and didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” says volunteer Phil Graf, “You realize these people are worth spending time with and there’s more there if you just give them a chance… And that it’s fun and that we sound great!” Volunteer Pat Gange adds about her musical buddy, “He’s getting companionship and that’s what they need. Because they must feel very isolated and alone in the world. You just be yourself, just be a friend to them. That’s the important thing.”

Since the group’s formation in April 2017, they’ve given two concerts at Villa Gardens for other residents, families, friends and staff. They continue to rehearse new music and, while no firm date is set, hope to hold a spring concert in March or April 2018.