Local Choral Ensemble Helps Fight Memory Loss with Music

CHOIR SINGERS rehearse ahead of their show this Sunday in Fairfax. (Courtesy Photo)

The inspiration for the Sentimental Journey Singers came about when Encore Creativity artistic director Jeanne Kelly realized that singing as a life-long pursuit involves certain challenges in old age.

“My mantra was, ‘We want our singers to sing for life,’ and I wasn’t making that happen. When I started Sentimental Journey Singers and found Dr. East an opportunity to conduct it, we were providing an opportunity to sing for life,” said Kelly.

Sentimental Journey Singers are a group of 21 singers with early onset Alzheimer’s and memory impairment. The group will be having their first concert on Sunday in Fairfax.

Encore Creativity, which bills itself as the nation’s largest choral organization for adults over 55, made the decision to form the Sentimental Journey Singers when members of the program’s existing choirs struggled with the music and needed a more accommodating program.

“Honestly, it’s not all that different in conducting any other kind of community choir except the pace of learning is a little bit slower. We pace a little slower and program less pieces to learn so that we have time to learn them,” said the program’s conductor Mary Anne East.

East and her piano accompanist Rachel Thompson also create time in the middle of rehearsal to get up and do movement exercises. East explained that this “Gets the body flowing while working through music.”

Like all Encore programs, the group holds no auditions, but in this case there are certain complexities to take into account to make sure everyone has the same capabilities. In particular, Alzheimers has a wide range of variables.

“Everybody with dementia’s different, it depends on what stage they’re at and what type of dementia they have because different types affect different parts of the brain,” explained East.

In this case, Encore started with an open house where the caretakers and family members of the singers can best judge whether the program is the right fit for them.

The group is partnered with Insight Memory Care Center, an Alzheimer’s and Dementia specific program located in the Fair Oaks neighborhood of Fairfax. Insight offers rehearsal space, promotion and whatever other resources they can to the Sentimental Journey Singers. According to East, the choir wouldn’t be possible without Insight because they are the only program in Northern Virginia that specializes in memory issues.

“The nice thing about being partnered with Insight is that we are already part of the early to moderate programming so [the caretakers and people working at Insight] know where their patients are with regard to the disease and they can recommend whether this program would be appropriate for them,” said East.

The group rehearses once a week and each singer is accompanied by a caretaker figure who will help guide them through the process. Members of Encore’s sister group, Encore’s Fairfax chorale, also stop by at each rehearsal to assist with the singing and learning.

Another difference between the benefits of this choir compared to other adult choirs is the social element, as isolation is often greater for those experiencing Alzheimer’s.

“Alzheimer’s is a very lonely disease, it’s usually you and your caretaker, so these people come out every Monday and it means a lot for them to be social,” said Kelly.

At the concert, the Sentimental Journey Singers will be joined by sister choir Fairfax Encore Chorale. The Encore chorale’s selection will include Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as well as Christmas fare, and the group’s namesake song: The Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “Sentimental Journey.”

The concert will be held at the St. George United Methodist Church located at 4910 Old Ox Road in Fairfax on Sunday, Dec. 1 at 2 p.m.