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Central Minn. group organizes dementia choir: Studies suggest music and memory are linked

Andrea Lund, left, Dr. Heidi Malling of Essentia Health, Steve Anderson and Diane Saumer Guidi tickle the ivories Nov. 26 at the inaugural gathering of a new dementia choir in the Brainerd lakes area at Zion Lutheran Church. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

BRAINERD, Minn. — Those with dementia struggle to remember, but one of the last things to be forgotten is music. A new choir in the Brainerd lakes area hopes to harness that mnemonic connection.

Dr. Heidi Malling is a hospitalist at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd. She had the idea to start a dementia choir after a Twin Cities medical conference in April.

“I saw a group from the Cities that was about caregivers and people with dementia that got together and formed a choir, and they talked about how nice it was to get out and do things with their significant other that is more fun … with other people who are in the same boat,” she said.

An estimated 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, including an estimated 5.5 million people 65 years old and older and about 200,000 people under age 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Music is the last thing that the mind tends to forget. Sometimes people who don’t talk at all will be able to sing ... and I knew there was a lot of musical talent up in this area and thought we should have a choir, too,” Malling said of her push to create a local dementia choir.

Alzheimer’s disease is the only 10th most common cause of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, but that has not stopped the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer's care, support and research from trying.

“I don’t know exactly what neurons match up to do it,” said Malling. “I think it’s because it’s familiar and repetitive, and when you have dementia, you tend to forget the more recent things first, so you’re going to forget what you had for breakfast, but you’ll remember singing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ or whatever when you were a kid.”

Country Music Hall of Famer Glen Campbell, who had hits with “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Southern Nights,” was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s soon after his 75th birthday but continued to tour and perform while being recorded for a documentary about the debilitating brain disorder.

“Once they’ve gotten far enough into it, they don’t know that they don’t know anybody anymore, and it really doesn’t bother them,” Malling said of those with dementia. “It’s when it first starts to happen that they first start to forget things, and they know they’re getting it, that’s bothersome.”

Dementia patients and their caregivers were invited last month to join the new choir designed specifically for them, but the choir’s organizers face difficulty in attracting members, according to Diane Saumer Guidi, a local and longtime singer in the Brainerd area.

Guidi, along with Malling, has been spearheading the effort to get the word out about the dementia choir.

“Music is one of the last things — if not the last thing — to leave the brains of people who suffer from these diseases, and I know that personally, because my father was a professional musician from the time he was 12, and music was the last thing to go when he had Alzheimer’s.”