Amazing Grace: Singing in chorus helps Alzheimer’s patients

May 15, 2015

Miss Denise Weaver doesn’t talk much these days, but oh, can she sing. 

She’ll take a solo lead on the spiritual “Please Be Patient With Me,” and have you humming it for days. And Deacon Willie Wade may be 93 years old and caring for a wife with memory problems, but his “Amazing Grace” solo is, well, amazing.

Dementia may have stolen some memories from the Amazing Grace Choir, but it sure hasn’t taken their music.

The chorus began last year as an outreach project of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute. The Helen Daniels Bader Foundation paid for a group from the institute to travel to New York University, where a pilot program started by Dr. Mary Mittelman was studying whether a singing could improve mood in caregivers and people with memory issues.

They brought the program to Milwaukee, where the institute, part of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, has an outreach effort in the African-American community.

The Milwaukee choir has about 16 members and began in the summer of 2014. The group has given two public concerts, including one at the “Ending the Silence” breakfast that showcased their skills to hundreds of families who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

“I think the music is a trigger for memory. When you’re recognized and loved, what you’ve forgotten comes back.”

Kevin C. Williams

What they heard was some beautiful harmony and solo singing. While the New York group had little musical background, many of the Milwaukee singers had decades of choir experience.

“These African Americans came up in the black church, they’ve been singing four-part harmony all their lives, so we can do more complicated music with them,” says Arlene Skwierawski, one of an all-star cast of community conductors who work with the choir on Saturday mornings.

Skwierawski led the music program at North Division High School for many years and remains involved the Milwaukee music and theater scene. Other directors include Kevin C. Williams; church music directors Vanta Jones and Micah Shaw; and community advisor Joe Nathaniel, Jr.

One of Skwierawski’s former students, Kevin C. Williams, a country music artist and a Milwaukee Public Schools music teacher himself, led the group’s practice on a recent spring morning.

He’s a lively conductor, hamming it up, and pushing his choir to learn a song with lyrics in English, German and Spanish and sign language. Williams says that music seems to provide a bridge back to their younger selves.

“I think the music is a trigger for memory,” he says. “When you’re recognized and loved, what you’ve forgotten comes back.”

The choir practice also forms a community for families struggling with the same issues. They worry when someone doesn’t show up and chorus coordinator Stephanie Houston spends time making sure members have transportation and other social supports in place so they can just sing on Saturday mornings.

Gina Green-Harris, director of Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute’s Milwaukee Outreach Program and Services, says the music doesn’t only heal those in the choir.

“When you see these people singing, it brings tears to your eyes,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, this is why we come to work everyday.’ This is powerful.”

The Amazing Grace Choir is hosting a free community event on Saturday, May 16 at 2 p.m. at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, 2300 W. Highland Avenue in Milwaukee. 

—Susan Lampert Smith