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Together In Song: New chorus makes unforgettable first impression at Mercy Medical Center

Mary Nurre provides accompaniment as Steve Nurre directs during the first practice of a new chorus at the Hallagan Education Center at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. The chorus will meet weekly in preparation for a November concert and brings together people with dementia, their caregivers and other volunteers. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Mary Nurre provides accompaniment as Steve Nurre directs during the first practice of a new chorus at the Hallagan Education Center at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. The chorus will meet weekly in preparation for a November concert and brings together people with dementia, their caregivers and other volunteers. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — For Dave Bryant, music is hard to forget.

Music has been a major part of Bryant’s life, and that passion has been amplified since the 80-year-old was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare variant of Alzheimer’s disease, in 2012.

“He really loves it. He said it really helped put him on a right track when he was a teenager. It found him another focus,” Karen Bryant, Dave’s wife, said as barbershop tunes played in the background of their Cedar Rapids home.

Bryant first joined a barbershop quartet when he was a junior in high school and has been performing with barbershop groups since then. He’s been a member of Harmony Hawks, a Cedar Rapids based men’s choir, for 53 years, Karen said.

But Bryant recently joined a new choir, which gathered for the first time Wednesday at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. Toward the end of the rehearsal, the 25-member choir sang through a rendition of the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

Bryant was beaming by the time practice concluded.

“This was really something,” he said.

The chorus offers an opportunity for individuals across skill level to either learn about music or participate in something they enjoy. However, it is unique in that it allows participants such as Bryant to be in an environment that caters specifically to them

The Family Caregiver Center of Mercy formed the Together in Song chorus for individuals with chronic conditions such as dementia or cancer, as well as their caregivers and other volunteers, to tap into a mutually beneficial experience.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” Karen Bryant said.

Unforgettable Impact

Throughout the first rehearsal Tuesday, the Family Caregiver Center’s executive director, Kathy Good, referred to the day as something akin to a dream come true.

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In fact, Tuesday was the final result of efforts toward a goal Good has held onto for years. She is the founder of the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy, which was created to provide free resources and other support for family caregivers who are caring for adults with chronic conditions such as dementia, cancer, Parkinson’s and others.

Good cared for her husband, David, who died in 2015 and who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s nearly a decade before.

He was invited to join the Harmony Hawks, a men’s barbershop group based in Cedar Rapids, after his diagnosis. The group was something that “meant a whole lot to him,” Good said.

Music “improved Dave’s quality of life a lot,” Good said. “Even at the very end of his life, I would come into his care center room and there would be music on and he would be tapping his foot to the beat.

“So I just knew somehow that what I saw there needed to happen here. And here it is today.”

According to recent studies, researchers have found musical aptitude and appreciation are among the longest-lasting abilities dementia patients retain. Music has been found to stir up memories, and encourage positive moods, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Country singer Glen Campbell’s case is one example of this. Campbell toured and performed such hits as “Wichita Lineman” after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011.

‘How to continue’

The Together in Song chorus is under the direction of Steve and Mary Nurre, a Cedar Rapids couple who serve as the director and accompanist respectively. The pair moved back to the United States last year after spending more than 30 years in South Korea and China as educators, and settled in Cedar Rapids.

In January, they were approached by Good — who was introduced to them by a mutual friend — about a plan she had to establish a chorus for individuals with chronic conditions. Would they be interested in helping?

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While they had years of experience working with community choirs, neither had any experience working with performers of this nature. So they visited the Giving Voice Choir, a Minneapolis-based choir made up of performers with dementia, to learn from the directors.

Overall, Steve Nurre said he learned that the chorus should not necessarily be about improving its participants’ conditions, but offer a space where they can socialize and continue to grow.

“I think it’s just the idea when you’re working with people with memory loss, oftentimes people see this as an end of life,” Nurre said. “People who have been diagnosed with dementia, for instance, are often told to go get their life in order because, in a sense, life is over.

“The goal of this organization is to help people understand how you continue to live and what allows you to continue to have a good quality of life.”

Together in Song will have several rehearsals over the next couple months before its one-time performance at 1 p.m., Monday, Nov. 19.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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