by CHRIS ROGERS
“I was a little nervous,” Rick Sandell admitted. Sandell had done a lot of things in his life, but singing in a choir was not one of them. Was his voice too squeaky? Was he a baritone or a tenor? How can one tell? “Who knows what I am,” Sandell said. “All I know is my mouth opens and something comes out.”
Sandell was a bit of a shy singer when he first got started with the Winona Friendship Center’s Forget Me Notes choir, a choir of people with dementia and their caregivers. However, Sandell said, “The more I got to know everybody, the more relaxed I got and the more comfortable I felt around everybody, so then I let loose.” After all, who can be nervous around characters like Mike Karsten?
Karsten volunteers with the Forget Me Notes, giving some members rides to choir practice or helping them find their place in the music books. Once, during a performance of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” when the choir reached the line where “Puff roars out his name,” Karsten interjected, in a squeaky, cartoonish voice, “Hi, I’m Puff.”
“I get done singing and Rick leaned over to me and said, ‘You know people are going to think you’re the one with dementia,’” Karsten recalled.
“Sometimes the laughter is as important as the singing,” choir director Norma Duden stated.
Dementia is a brutal disease that robs people of so much and can leave them feeling confused and alone. But music seems to cut through some of that and connect with people on a different level, Forget Me Notes members said.
“It’s just hardwired into the brain. When they hear music, it’s in them,” Duden stated. “You can just hear the emotional release they have,” Karsten said, “because there’s something they can grab, and they’re part of a group.”
Duden said that Friendship Center Director Malia Fox got the idea for the Forget Me Notes from the Twin Cities’ Giving Voice Chorus, a choir to “celebrate the full potential of people living with dementia.” Memory loss can make a lot of activities challenging, but many people will still remember songs from their youth when they hear the tune, Duden explained. “Our main thing is just to have an hour of enjoyment,” she stated. “One of the members said, ‘This is the highlight of my week. It makes me so happy.’”
“I enjoy the people there,” Sandell said of the Forget Me Notes. He added, “We do it to help our memory because music is healthy. Like me, I have dementia. So it’s helping a lot of us that have dementia to try and stay active with the community, and it keeps my memory a little bit on cue.”
Rick Sandel’s wife, Wendy Sandel, said, “It’s just good for him to be able to get out and socialize with people and stay active in the community. It gives him a purpose.” She added, “When he comes home from either practice or from a concert, he just seems to be much more energized and much more alive.”
The choir has unintentionally become a source of respite for some caregivers, Duden said. “The main idea is for the caregiver to come, but sometimes the caregiver isn’t interested and they need that break to run to the post office,” she explained. Karsten added that the group has some caregivers who come without the person with dementia. “And this is just an opportunity for the caregiver to let her hair down with people who understand where she’s at,” he explained. For people with dementia, “It’s an opportunity to talk with people who understand them,” Duden added.
In addition to performances at the Friendship Center, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and last year’s Levee Park grand reopening, the choir recently sang at the funeral of one of its members. “I was really thrilled that we got to do that,” Rick Sandell stated. “Because this guy — he was a treat to be around, and the disease took him so quick. I didn’t get to know him that long, but when we had this last concert, I went out and said hi to his wife, and asked her how she was doing, and told her we miss him. And she started crying a little bit, and we all went out and gave her a hug and told her it’s going to be alright … It’s quite the ordeal sometimes.”
The Forget Me Notes’ next performance is on Monday, April 1, at 3 p.m. at the Winona Friendship Center, 251 Main Street, in Winona. The performance is part of a series of events celebrating Dementia Friendly Community Week in Winona. Watch for more event announcements coming up in the Winona Post.