Giving voice to dementia

Giving Voice Chorus
Photo by Dan Norman

Three of my good friends — old friends — have had or have Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia. One has died, two are still alive and all have been an important part of my life — and remain so. It’s been an honor to be with them.

What I’ve learned is that the disease, though powerful, isn’t able to steal who they are: We can still roll soul-to-soul and tell the stories that have enriched and informed our lives.

So it’s no wonder I’m delighted and excited about the Giving Voice Chorus concert happening June 16 at the Ordway in St. Paul.

Love Never Forgets will feature the world premiere of a choral work of the same name that illuminates life with Alzheimer’s, written in collaboration with people who have the disease and their caregivers.

Those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers will raise their voices in song to share their stories and to show their passion for being active and creative.

I went to one of the rehearsals of Love Never Forgets at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis and heard one of the three choirs that make up the 170-member Giving Voice Chorus.
They practiced some of their new songs and relaxed into a few old favorites, too.

To the ears of this old boy, it was stunning. They blew the room away.

Director Jeanie Brindley-Barnett, a MacPhail teaching artist, had the group warm up with a blues riff. From there, they went on to their concert finale, Love Never Forgets, with its powerful and memorable lyrics:

You may not have the language. Yes, it’s true.

You may not have the words. But darlin’,

You and I will never lose what we know is love.

Love comes straight from the heart, it carries no debts.

Oh, love never forgets.

Make no mistake: This chorus isn’t amateurish. It’s professional, polished and passionate. The words are crisp and clear. The harmonies are powerful and soulful. The sound is rich and full. The singers — those with the disease and those giving the care — are energetic and expressive. They held their song books with purpose and kept their eyes on the director.

I could feel their joy. This was no surprise to Mary Lenard, the former head of the Minnesota Alzheimer’s Association and one of the founders of the Giving Voice Chorus in 2014.

There are now 10 such groups in the Midwest and others around the country — and the world — designed to foster participants’ joy, well-being and sense of purpose as well as community understanding.

“Those who joined the chorus reported early on that the quality of their life was better, that they were happier, more fulfilled,” Lenard said. “And their caregivers definitely felt that way, especially seeing those they love in a whole new light.”

In 2010 in Minnesota, 94,000 men and women age 65 and older had Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

By 2020, the number is expected to top 100,000. In the country as a whole, 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s.

Donna Snetting and Judy McCool

When she sings in the chorus, Donna Snetting is much more than a statistic. She and her sister/caregiver, Judy McCool, both of Prior Lake, find the experience rewarding and affirming. “I love that the people we are surrounded by are really serious about the music,” Snetting said.

For her sister, it’s a chance to get back to singing.

“I used to sing in the high school choir,” McCool said, “And then I didn’t sing for years. It feels good to be back. And I really like Love Never Forgets. The lyrics are so personal.”

So much about the chorus rehearsal at the MacPhail Center felt personal to me, so I took the opportunity to sing along — quietly, of course — on the group’s renditions of How Can I Keep From Singing and God Bless America. As we began with the patriotic favorite, I could feel chills run down my spine.

Love Never Forgets

What: The Giving Voice Chorus, made of people who have some form of dementia and their caregivers, presents a concert, including a world-premiere performance of the original song Love Never Forgets.

When: 2 p.m. June 16

Where: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, St. Paul

Cost: $20–$30 ($10 for ages 12 and younger)

Info: Learn more about the performance — and about how to start your own chorus — at

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].