Toward the end of practice, Les, 79, and Julie Burger, 80, stood up and started to dance.
The small choir was seated around, singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” After a little prying, Julie Burger was able to convince her husband to abandon singing for a short dance on Thursday, as the Sing Here Now choir met for its weekly practice at Mannahouse Church in Vancouver.
Sing Here Now is Vancouver’s only choir for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It’s run by the Alzheimer’s Association Oregon & Southwest Washington Chapter. The choir had its first session in the summer. It has re-grouped for a winter session that will run through mid-March, and it might culminate in a small concert if the choir can get enough participants.
Research shows that listening to or singing music can provide “emotional and behavioral benefits” for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to the Mayo Clinic. Music can relieve stress, reduce anxiety and depression and reduce agitation in those impacted by those disorders. It can also bring back happy memories, which is partly why Sing Here Now meets before lunchtime, said Joey Yourchek, who co-directs the choir.
“We chose this time of day because people are bringing their loved ones here, and they’re going to sing for an hour and a half, and then they’ll be able to go out to lunch and have a conversation,” Yourchek said.
Les Burger said his wife of 59 years has always been very musical and enjoyed singing or playing instruments. A Columbian story on the couple from 2017 outlined how Les Burger would always sing “You Are My Sunshine” to Julie after she answered his calls. It was a way for her to quickly recognize who was calling, because she didn’t always remember names, but she could remember song lyrics.
The Burgers first joined an Alzheimer’s choir in Portland, also through the Alzheimer’s Association, and they said they are happy there’s been a choir created in Vancouver. Les Burger said his wife is enjoying the singalongs.
“If you start singing a song from the ’60s, Julie will know all the words,” he said.
Beth Anderson, who directs the choir with Yourchek, said “music defies dementia” since music reaches memories with such success. The affection on display when the Burgers danced is also a component of the choir. Anderson and Yourchek believe the choir can be a stimulating, social activity. There’s a brief intermission at each practice, where the choir can chat with each other. Jokes also flow frequently during practices.
Right before the choir sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” one man joked: “Fly me to the moon, but I can’t go. I got dishes to do at home.”
Anderson says the choir has become a community in a short amount of time.
“We’d like to see people realize that just because they have the label of dementia doesn’t mean they can’t be out and do things and have fun,” Anderson said.
Claire-Marie Wisner, a program specialist with Alzheimer’s Association Oregon & Southwest Washington, said leaving the house and interacting with others is important to quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. She’s been inspired by Sing Here Now.
“They’re living life after a diagnosis,” Wisner said, “and lots of people think there’s no life after that.”