Two seemingly different generations come together each Monday evening on John Carroll University’s campus through the power of music: adults with Alzheimer’s disease who are often branded with a negative stigma clouded with misunderstanding; millennials who are perceived as self-centered and egotistical.
Each week, JCU students and community people with early stages of the disease and their families file into the choir room for music, laughter, camaraderie and friendship.
These 26 different people, hailing from a variety of backgrounds, share one common bond – their love of music.
In the hopes of combating misunderstandings of early-stage Alzheimer’s, Penny Harris, chair of the Sociology and Criminology Department and director of the aging studies program, and Cynthia Caporella, director of liturgical music and musical arts, teamed up last year.
Together, they formed the first intergenerational choir for college students, people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and families at John Carroll.
This marks the second year of the choir’s existence. Harris created the choir as part of a research project to help fight Alzheimer’s stigma and conquer the stereotypes that come with the diagnosis. “When a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, that is how they are defined,” said Harris.
“Many don’t see the person behind it – just the disease. With the diagnosis comes many misunderstandings and confusions.”
Harris first got the idea to form the choir when one of her past students from an aging studies class worked in marketing and advertising for a film called “Young at Heart.” This documentary followed an older singing group, showing how music helped them deal with the aging process in an enjoyable way.This concept sparked an idea.
Harris began the research project to form an intergenerational choir in 2012 by enlisting Caporella’s support, approaching the Cleveland Area Alzheimer’s Association with the idea and getting the research approved by the JCU Institutional Review Board for the protection of human subjects.
From there, the recruitment process began. Word of mouth spread, and students from John Carroll not only had to complete a vocal audition with Caporella, but were also screened by Harris for the research component.
The group rehearsed for eight weeks, and then showcased their talents in April at the 23rd Annual Alzheimer’s Disease Educational Event in the Donahue Auditorium.
“We had a standing ovation,” said Caporella. “No one left, after the last song, and they asked for an encore.”
“Almost everyone was in tears,” added Harris.
According to Harris, last year’s results were remarkable. “The changes we saw in the students during the eight-week rehearsal period were astounding,” said Harris.
“They started calling the community members with Alzheimer’s their friends.
They came earlier, stayed later and insisted they wanted a cast party after the performance.”
The results of last year’s studies that were documented by Harris will be published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.
As a result of the positive feedback the group received, Harris and Caporella reinstated the choir for a second year.
Although the mission of the choir has stayed the same, slight changes have occurred.
“I think the community jelled a little quicker this year,” said Caporella. “My guess is because we had some returnees. Last year, relationships remained more unchangeable because each community member was assigned to a student ‘singing buddy.’
“This year, we’re kind of mixing it up a bit – and, it seems to be working. Now the students are able to form relationships with more people, as well as help out musically.”
Junior Megan Boyk, a member of the choir for two years, is grateful for the opportunity to form relationships with the other members through the power of music.
“My favorite thing about the choir is just spending time with the people there,” said Boyk. “It’s been really interesting to hear the stories of the people with Alzheimer’s and their families.
You can tell they really cherish the time they spend with each other, and with us. Seeing how much they appreciate the little things in life has made me reevaluate how I think about my own life.”
Although Boyk has grown to love the intergenerational choir, she was initially anxious and unsure about what the experience would bring.
“At first, it was really different hanging out with people who are my grandparents’ age,” said Boyk. “I think I was a little apprehensive about spending time with people whose life experiences are so different from my own. But like I said, we’ve truly gotten to know each other and become good friends.
“The people with Alzheimer’s and their relatives are very warm, welcoming and fun to be around, so they made that particular challenge easy to overcome.”
Both Harris and Caporella noted that the misunderstandings the students initially had seemed to fall by the wayside as rehearsals progressed.
Not only does the choir allow students to lessen the stigma and misunderstandings that encompass Alzheimer’s disease, but it gives community members a safe space to practice what they love.
“Music really is the vehicle we use to bring people together,” said Caporella.
“Additionally, some of the caregivers view [the choir] as a place where they don’t have as much responsibility as they would back home. It gives them a break.
“It also lessens their social isolation,” added Harris.
In the end, Harris and Caporella said that the camaraderie and relationships that have evolved since the choir was started is evident in their rehearsals.
“It’s ultimately about a community that has been molded together with kindness, giving and caring.”
Editor’s Note: The intergenerational choir will perform at the 24th Annual Alzheimer’s Disease Educational Event on Wednesday, April 23 at 7 p.m. in the Donahue Auditorium of the Dolan Center for Science and Technology.