Her husband hadn’t spoken much lately, not even to say hello, a participant told Debbie Nordeen following a session of Side by Side Singing, a community group geared toward those coping with cognitive impairments such as dementia, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s. Now, the woman said, since they had been attending the singing events together, she and her husband were sharing more verbal interaction, even in the days and weeks afterward.
“You could see it just in the way they were looking at each other,” says Nordeen. “Those smiles — with no pressure, no stress. I could just cry talking about it.”
That emotional uplift is the raison d’être for Side by Side Singing, which Nordeen founded with Ruthie Rosauer in 2013. Nordeen — a trained music educator who also leads Womansong of Asheville — saw how singing helped her mother, who suffers from dementia. “I wanted to create some activity that was not in a nursing home, and not about brain cells and blood pressure — something to lift the spirit of the person with dementia, but also the caregiver,” she says.
Rosauer had previously volunteered in Wisconsin bringing singing therapy to hospital patients, so when Nordeen reached out to her about launching the program, she enthusiastically signed on. “I had seen firsthand the dramatic changes singing can make for people,” Rosauer says. “There’s nothing like singing [the hymn] ‘Old Rugged Cross,’ and [the patient] starts singing every word. The family starts freaking out, laughing, crying. This woman hasn’t spoken in months, but you tap into a song and she can sing every word.”
As they developed the program, Nordeen and Rosauer — who both volunteer their efforts — researched the proven health benefits of singing. Just listening to music is certainly a mood booster, but actually singing can improve short-term memory in both Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Later, they found studies on how singing aids those living with Parkinson’s— controlling volume, increasing vocal speed, varying pitch and expression — and so they widened Side by Side’s purview. Finally, realizing that such a myriad of benefits exist for all people, they designated Side by Side’s community as anyone and everyone, with emphasis on “healthy aging.”
Each session is self-contained and begins, as with any musical rehearsal, with a warm-up. Nordeen has designed several works toward the needs of those with Parkinson’s, without overemphasizing or calling attention to it. “Their perception is skewed because of brain and nerves,” she explains. “The don’t realize they are taking tiny steps or that their face is coming off like a mask. They have to make a conscious effort to be bigger.” So participants stretch their mouths back toward their ears, purse their lips forward, and so on.
Side by Side’s repertoire draws mainly from the Great American Songbook. “We make an effort to reach back, to get that long-term memory,” says Rosauer. “Things like ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ or ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ — those songs are deep in there.” Rosauer is particularly partial to “This Little Light of Mine,” which never fails to get everyone clapping and singing at full volume. Nordeen and Rosauer’s infectious energy inspires some minimal seat-based dance moves as well.
“I look around and every single person is singing,” describes Rosauer. “It’s not like a church service, where half the people are just moving their lips. There’s so much joy.”
The songbook varies from week to week — other favorites include Broadway hits like “My Favorite Things” or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” — but always closes with “Happy Trails,” offering a familiar structure to each session. “Do they remember?” asks Nordeen. “Well, that was interesting to discover, and also seeing what happens when we do something new. We taught a simple song and a week later they caught on faster, and then faster the next week. Of course that’s anecdotal research, but we could see something happening.”
Whether the results are scientifically measurable or not, the benefits are clear. Says Rosauer, “When a wife comes up to me and says, ‘I felt like I had my husband back; I felt like we were sharing something as equals’ —well, I would do it anyway, but when people share those things, it’s wonderful.”
The next Side by Side Singing series begins Thursday, July 13, and runs through August 3 on Thursdays at 2pm at Calvary Episcopal Church (2840 Hendersonville Road, Fletcher). Another series begins August 9 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Asheville. Free. For more information, see sidebysidesinging.wordpress.com.