Originally shared by LNP on 4/19/2019
MARGARET GATES | LNP
VINNY TENNIS | Staff Photographer
GRACE NOTES: People with dementia find their voice in unique Lancaster County choir
Weekly choir practice at Landis Homes’ West Bethany Chapel is about what you might expect with a big spring concert on the horizon. There are multiple takes of “This Land is Your Land” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” The soloists are fine-tuning their numbers, so they end on just the right crescendo. And the jovial choral director is gently prodding his singers.
It could be any musical ensemble but for one difference: Once some of these choir members walk out the doors of rehearsal into the bright spring sunshine, they may have no memory of ever being there.
And that’s OK, because this group is not about a flawless final performance, but the process of getting there — one joyful musical moment at a time. The Sing for the Moment Choir is an eight-week choral program for those living with memory loss and their care partners. It is a joint effort of Landis Communities, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and the Alzheimer’s Association.
The group, which now numbers more than 40, had its first eight-week session in the fall, with a concert in December. The spring session will culminate in a performance Sunday, April 28, at Landis Homes.
The theory behind the program is simple. “Music touches a part of the brain that nothing else does,” says Shelby Swartley, a social worker with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health who also leads a memory loss support group.
That’s because the part of the brain that responds to and recalls music is one of the last to be affected by a dementia condition, says Candy Yingling, education and outreach coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter.
For those with early to mid-stage dementia, Sing for the Moment is an opportunity for social interaction that lifts the spirit and lightens the mood, she says. “It’s about the quality moment of time,” Yingling says, “the quality moment when they’re engaged and participating. The feeling of happiness remains longer.”
It’s a feeling that Gene and Kim Enck, of Elizabethtown, have come to embrace. In an earlier life, Gene Enck was executive director of a state school board association. He and his wife raised horses and enjoyed outdoor activities together, like canoeing and kayaking. Since Gene’s diagnosis in 2014, “all that is gone,” Kim says.
Several years ago, the Encks, who also participate in Swartley’s support group, joined a Sing for the Moment choir in Mechanicsburg and told Swartley how much they enjoyed it.
“Some things you only do for the person as a caregiver,” Kim says. “But this is something we can do together that we enjoy. Honestly, there’s very few things that fit that.”
Swartley and Faith Hoover, director of Landis Adult Day services at Landis Homes, started talking about the choir at a seminar for caregivers last year, and decided to bring the program to Lancaster County.
When it came time to find a director, Hoover turned to Clair Leaman, a graduate of Westminster Choir College and founder and director of the “Messiah” singalongs held annually in Lancaster and Chester counties. “I had never in my life ever thought of doing anything like this,” says Leaman, a senior account executive with DavCo Advertising, who calls the Wednesday morning rehearsals at West Bethany Chapel “the bright spot of my week.”
Light-hearted and gentle, Leaman tries to make the experience fun. At one point, he feigns surprise at learning the performance is only two weeks away. “You people better start shaping up,” he says to laughter.
Measures of success
“He does such a wonderful job of having the expectation of a choir, but understanding when he bumps into a limitation,” Yingling says. Leaman says he’s simply had to shift his focus away from the final program and getting everything just right. He’s not worried about that. Success is measured in the smiling faces at rehearsals.
“This is focusing on the journey,” Leaman says. “It’s changed me. I realize how important it is to enjoy the moment.”