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Local nonprofit debuts chorus for those with early onset Alzheimer’s

The new program founded by Encore Creativity will provide benefits that extend beyond vocal practice for NoVA residents with memory impairment.

seniors singing in a room
Photo courtesy of Encore Creativity for Older Adults 

Vocalist Jeanne Kelly has always had a passion for the arts. From performing with the Washington Opera to teaching students at the Baltimore School for the Arts, her love for music has never faded. 

In 2001, Kelly was invited to participate in a study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts by gerontologist Dr. Jean Cohen, who was hoping to understand the relationship between creativity and aging. What Cohen found by observing several choral groups and other professional organizations is that after nine months of singing, older individuals showed better signs of overall health compared to the control group, with fewer falls, less need for long-term health care, less doctor visits and higher morale. 

Five years later when the study was officially published by several research publications, Kelly decided to do something with the results, in the form of Encore Creativity for Older Adults, a nonprofit based in Annapolis dedicated to providing seniors with excellent and accessible artistic opportunities

“The best part about working with older adults is none of them are forced to be there, like you see with young kids,” explains Kelly. “They take in everything, they want to be challenged, they want to sing a demanding repertoire and be respected. I thought Encore could do that.”

Since its inception, Encore has become the nation’s largest choral program for individuals ages 55 and older, with 22 choral programs in five states, serving over 1,250 singers. And now, right here in Northern Virginia, Encore is giving individuals with early onset Alzheimer’s the opportunity to sing in a formal chorus led by a professional conductor. 

The idea for the group, titled Sentimental Journey Singers, stemmed from a moment last year when one singer was worried about performing at the annual concert at The Kennedy Center due to his recent diagnosis of early onset dementia. 

“Our motto is, ‘Sing for life,’ and we weren’t living up to it before starting this program,” says Kelly. “These people often get to a point where they can no longer sing with Encore because they can’t handle the repertoire. So I wanted to give them a place they could go.” 

According to a recent article published by Brain: A Journal of Neurology, musical memory is considered to be partly independent from other memory systems, and tends to be one of the last things to leave the memory for people with the neurodegenerative disease. 

Encore partnered with Insight Memory Care Center in Fairfax to bring Sentimental Journey Singers to life this fall, with practices officially starting on Sept. 9, and continuing through Dec. 1, when the group will perform a holiday concert at Saint George’s United Methodist Church. 

The chorus is led by conductor Mary Ann East, who was initially attracted to the program when she saw firsthand how vocalists of Encore were benefiting from the various choral groups. 

“What we’ve seen is that music can increase social opportunities for them and take away from that sense of loneliness many of them feel,” says East. “I really think Sentimental Journeys will bring a lot to these folks.”

Kelly and East are hoping to attract individuals who are still living at home and seeing signs of early onset Alzheimer’s, other branches of dementia or any other forms of memory impairment. In addition to East at the helm, music therapist Rachel Thompson will double as the pianist. 

At each practice, East will lead the group in physical warm ups with coordination and breathing, conduct vocal exercises and work through a repertoire of familiar music, which includes songs by The Beatles and holiday classics to be performed at the final performance in December. Volunteer singers from the other choral programs will be on-site, too, in addition to the caretakers of each performer if they choose to join. Before the first practice began, Sentimental Journey Singers had eight singers and seven caretakers signed up for this season’s session. 

According to Kelly, music is one of the most uplifting forms of therapy she can suggest for older individuals and with Sentimental Journey Singers, the performers will get more out of it than just vocal practice.

“Music allows them to forget their agitation, and we aren’t going to talk about Alzheimer’s,” says Kelly. “We are going to celebrate singing and the joy you get from it, that’s the most important thing.” // Insight Memory Care: 3953 Pender Drive, Suite 100, Fairfax; $195 for 15 weeks of rehearsals

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