The Power of Song for Those With Alzheimer's & Their Caregivers

Tired of feeling like the caregiver and wish you and your ailing spouse, parent, or relative could do something fun together outside your "roles"?

Twenty-two people, half with early- to middle-stage dementia, the others their family caregivers, feel the same way. So, they are belting out tunes side by side as part of a New York City first-ever chorus known as The Unforgettables. The chorale conductor is a music therapist and musician.

It seems to be more than just a feel-good get together. Mary Mittelman, an epidemiologist at New York University Langone Medical Center who founded the chorus, tracked the group before they started rehearsing (two hours a week), midway through, and after the group's first concert last September.

The results after 13 rehearsals and the concert? Better quality of life, self-esteem and mood, including less depression, for both groups, and a way to forget about being The Caregiver and just be husband/wife and parent/child again.

There's thought that music can activate parts of the brain not impacted by dementia until the late stage of the disease.

The isolation a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer's can be profound. Here, caregivers socialize during the break and find support in one another. No one has dropped out of the group. In fact, when one of the care recipients died, her daughter asked to remain part of the group. Watch this video of  The Unforgettables

The first year's project was privately funded. The singing duos wanted to continue after that period, and now contribute whatever money they can.

Mittelman, a researcher at NYU Medical's Center of Excellence on Brain Aging, is hoping to receive funding to conduct a larger study. "I want to show the wider medical care community that treatment isn't just about reducing pain and giving medical care, but also providing pleasure," she says.

Participants and spectators are singing the program's praises, and there's interest from other parts of the country. Mittelman hopes to be able to train more conductors so there's a common set of techniques.

If you're the musical type and find this model appealing, you might talk to your local Alzheimer's association or The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function.

There are other stimulating and fun programs that bring caregivers and those with dementia together. I highlighted the Museum of Modern Art's program in an earlier blog and a piece on a cool movie program in Massachusetts in a longer AARP piece.

But, you don't have to be in a chorus or have Alzheimer's to enjoy time with your loved one. How about sharing something you both like to do? Cook. Garden. Take yoga together. We need to change the emphasis, Mittelman believes, from being the caregiver of a sick person to the two of you being together.

Don't forget what the Unforgettables teach us: "There are not just ill people, they are people," says Mittelman. Their next concert: May 3 at Saint Peter's Church in mid-town New York.

Stay tuned.

Follow Sally Abrahms at www.sallyabrahms.com and on Twitter at @sallyabrahms.

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