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The Unforgettables choir offers brain-boosting fun, socialization for those with memory loss

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Marianne Rivard (left) plays a percussion instrument and sings along with her husband, Dale (right), during a rehearsal for "The Unforgettables," a choir created for people with Alzheimer's and dementia as well as for their caregivers, at Calvary Lutheran Church on Wednesday morning. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)2 / 8
Arlene Sickels (second from left) sings during a rehearsal for "The Unforgettables" choir, which was created in January for people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and their caregivers. The choir meets from 10 a.m. to noon every Wednesday. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)3 / 8
Rachael Schiller (right), a junior music therapy student at UND, assists Cassel Everson (left) during rehearsal of "The Unforgettables" choir Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Grand Forks. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)4 / 8
A songbook for "The Unforgettables" choir lies on a chair in the Calvary Lutheran Church fellowship hall prior to rehearsal on Wednesday morning. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald5 / 8
Members of "The Unforgettables" choir, which was launched in January for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia as well as their caregivers, rehearse in the Calvary Lutheran Church fellowship hall on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)6 / 8
Members of "The Unforgettables" choir, which was started in January for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia as well as their caregivers, socialize at the Calvary Lutheran Church fellowship hall prior to rehearsal on Wednesday, March 7, 2018. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)7 / 8
Cassel Everson directs "The Unforgettables" choir during a rehearsal Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Grand Forks. Accompanying the choir are Mary Ann Devig, piano, and UND music therapy student, Rachael Schiller, guitar. (Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald)8 / 8

Dale Rivard sometimes has trouble finding the words he wants to say—he's coping with symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

"Speech is probably the worst problem I have," he said. "But when I sing, I have no problems."

He and his wife, Marianne, who live in East Grand Forks, are members of a choir, "The Unforgettables," which has been meeting each Wednesday since January at Calvary Lutheran Church, and welcomes people with dementia and their caregivers.

"I really enjoy it," Rivard said. "For those of us that have Alzheimer's, it's pretty marvelous."

"It is, by far, one of the best experiences of my life," he said.

Singing, it turns out, is good for the brain.

That's one of the reasons Mary Ann Devig, parish nurse, wanted to start the choir.

Scientific research shows that singing "is the only activity that lights up every part of the brain on PET scans," said Devig. (PET stands for positron emission tomography, a functional imaging technique.)

The bright light on the scans is evidence of activity, basically electrical energy, in the brain, she said.

Carol Geiszler, who's directing the choir with assistance from Cassel Everson, has selected old favorites, popular tunes that stir the memory—like "Consider Yourself at Home" and "Battle of Jericho."

Membership totals 32, Devig said. Those with dementia are asked to join with a caregiver.

She was inspired to start the choir while watching a performance of the Giving Voice Chorus at a "Meeting of the Minds" dementia conference in St. Paul two years ago, she said.

That chorus, launched in 2015, was formed to help people with Alzheimer's and their care partners live better lives through singing together.

It has spawned three other similar choruses in the Twin Cities and 19 others worldwide, including the one in Grand Forks, Devig said.

Social benefits

In addition to stimulating memory, The Unforgettables choir provides an opportunity for people to socialize with others who are coping with similar health challenges, which is very important, Devig said.

"People who have dementia tend to become isolated," she said, when what they need more than ever is support from others.

When a spouse or loved one exhibits symptoms of Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia "people kind of back off," said Susan Lloyd, of Northwood, N.D., whose husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

"They don't know how to react. It's a lonely time."

Rivard said, "You don't go to too many places, and you don't want to. People see you and you're not the person you were six months ago."

"A group like this, it's nonjudgmental," said Paulette Deutsch, Northwood. "Everyone makes mistakes, and it's no big deal."

The choir, along with the Memory Cafe that Devig started a few years ago to spread dementia education, has been beneficial, Lloyd said.

"It opens a whole new world to you—a whole world of literature, of understanding," Lloyd said. "I wish more people would bring their loved ones here."

"It's wonderful to see people with all levels of the disease be able to participate," she said.

Deutsch said dementia "affects people from all walks of life. We have teachers, a doctor, a lawyer, engineers here."

She said she's grateful to Devig, Geiszler and Everson for leading the choir and to UND music therapy students, Rachael Schiller, Maggie O'Malley and Cassandra Richtsmeier, who sing with the choir and play instruments, such as the guitar, in accompaniment.

'We have fun'

Rivard, a former assistant state's attorney and prosecutor, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last fall and had to quit his job.

The Rivards have been involved with the choir since last fall when a few rehearsals were held on a trial basis.

"We thought this would be a good experience," he said. "We thought it would be enjoyable."

That has proven to be true.

"The people here are so nice. This makes my week," he said. "I will miss it during the summer."

Mark and Jan Hoffman of Grand Forks joined the choir a few weeks ago, at the urging of friends.

"I think it's fun," Jan Hoffman said. "We get together and we have fun. We learn music."

And you don't have to be a seasoned singer to participate, the couple found out.

"The folks sitting beside me are loud enough so I can follow," Mark Hoffman said.

His wife, who started having some memory problems several years ago, is a "smiley eyes lady who loves to sing," he said. "With most of the songs, she doesn't need to read the words."

When the choir rehearses, members respond readily to Everson who, as a director, is a bundle of energy, instructing and engaging them with words of praise on a job well done.

She claps her hands in the rhythm of the song while speaking the lyrics; the choir speaks them back, matching her rhythm.

When they're ready to run through the whole piece, Everson says, "You can speak the words or you can sing. Do whatever makes your little heart happy."

Rivard and other members said they hope others who are dealing with similar health challenges will consider joining the choir.

"This is just heaven for me," Rivard said.

"We'd like to get more people, to see if this could be a benefit to them."

About the choir

Who: "The Unforgettables" choir

What: Choir for people with dementia and their care partners

When: Meets from 10 a.m. to noon, Wednesdays

Where: Calvary Lutheran Church, 1405 S. Ninth St., Grand Forks

For more information, call Mary Ann Devig, parish nurse, (701) 772-4897