Special Report: The Victory Chorus

Updated: February 25, 2019 06:40 PM

A simple melody and notes on a page, become music that can soothe the soul.

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One Duluth mother-daughter duo has been singing together for years.

"I think singing has been part of our family for a long time," Kathy Heltzer said with her mom, Marilyn. 

They find joy in the harmonies, but that joy is getting harder to find as Kathy is watching her mother, slowly slip away.

"She now is in memory care," Heltzer said. 

Marilyn is dealing with dementia and it's led them on a long, hard journey.  The journey has taken its toll on Kathy.

"The year before she went into memory care was probably the most difficult of my life," Heltzer said.  "It was really hard for her to manage and kind of cope with day to day activities."

The passage of time only brings more struggles, but one thing has made it easier, their music.

"In the last 6 months language has been more difficult," Heltzer said.  "It's been fascinating that even when she can't really talk, sometimes you just go blah blah blah," Heltzer said as Marilyn began to laugh.  "See yeah she does that, but even when she does that, she can still sing."

Once a week they join in the singing with others and the march of time is on hold, pausing the inevitable, but this is not just any chorus.

"This is the Victory Chorus," Music Director, Karen Bauman, said.

The room filled with hope and joy.

"For all of us human beings, music is a source of nourishment and energy," Bauman said. 

The Victory Chorus got its start this year when Dementia Friendly Duluth wanted to provide another opportunity to support those dealing with dementia.

"Who can beat having a mission of creating joy, how can you beat that?" Bauman said. 

At the chorus practice, those with dementia, their caretakers, and volunteers sing songs full of life together.

"The one song we're doing the dandelion, where the choir has to sneeze, 'Achoo,' and you can't help but laugh," Bauman said. 

The songs bring out laughter in the midst of the confusion and one volunteer, Jenny McInerney, understands the confusion, as she's seen it before.

"My mother fought the fight for 12 years and she was never able to be a part of this," McInerney said.  "While she was getting worse and worse in the disease, she ended up still always being able to sing."

The music never left Jenny's mother, even when everything else did.

"She could carry the tunes and yet she didn't know what she had had for lunch or didn't always know who we were," McInerney said. 

The music is bringing people together.

"It's very important for people living with dementia to have social interaction and to feel good and supported in the community," Mimi Stender, with Dementia Friendly Duluth said. 

It's not just providing support though, because science has shown, music can do so much more.

"One thing that research has shown is that there are some chemicals that get released in their brain when we participate in making music," Bauman said. "We find ourselves to be a lot more happy and aware and engaged."

With each song they sing, a memory from the past inches forward in their minds.

"The portions of our brain especially in memory, with musical memory, there's some crossover into language that happens," Bauman said.  "Drawing in from some areas of the brain that respond to music, that hold musical memory and it just becomes automatic almost and it's pretty neat."

The moments where it just clicks, they see the change with their own eyes.

"One of them said he was humming today and this is a person who really has a very hard time speaking anymore," Bauman said. 

While the tune and lyrics move some, for others it's the motion.

"For some of our participants these are people coping with dementia, they respond more to movement," Bauman said. 

The time together as a group is making a difference.

"To see the care partners looking over at the person next to them and just going like, 'Wow they're mirroring right along with the director what's going on?'" Bauman said. 

Watching Kathy's mom, Marilyn at the Victory Chorus practice, you would never know she's lost so much of what's made her Marilyn.

"Where my mom can't, she really can't read much anymore, she used to be a writer, she can't write so much anymore, but she can still sing," Heltzer said. 

It's bringing out the joy, while also lending support to those along the journey.

"For me to have other people provide that support has just been invaluable," Heltzer said. 

The Victory Chorus is touching the lives of all those involved in a community so often isolated.

"It's not so much about the negative part of the disease," McInerney said. 

"When you have dementia, so often people focus on all of the stuff you can't do and so one thing that is so great about this choir is that the focus is on what we can do," Heltzer said. 

"It's about the joy," McInerney said. 

They're creating joy through song.

"That's really been a beautiful thing to be able to still sing together," Heltzer said. 

The Victory Chorus will have a final performance on May 5 at 1:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth.  Session 2 starts on June 9.  You can click here to learn more about signing up. 

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