Letting Their Lights Shine

choir for Chippewa Valley seniors dealing with dementia lifts spirits, makes memories

Tom Giffey

“It reminds me we have much more that we can do for people with memory loss or some kind of disability.” – Cathy Reitz, Stand in the Light Choir director
“It reminds me we have much more that we can do for people with memory loss or some kind of disability.” – Cathy Reitz, Stand in the Light Choir director

The heads of the performers, gray and not-so-gray, bob in anticipation above their music-filled spiral notebooks as they prepare to sing. This selection for the Stand in the Light Choir is an arrangement of the old Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” Director Cathy Reitz asks her choir to stand.

“It’s given me back some confidence to do something positive – learning new songs and making new friends,” – Iva Peck, Stand in the Light Choir member

“We sing the melody on verses one and two, and on verse three is where you guys take the harmony,” Reitz explains. She lifts her hands, accompanist Nancy Wendt begins playing the piano, and the 30 choir members raise the voices in a beautiful, familiar, and wholly appropriate song.

“Tis better to give than it is to receive,” one verse concludes.

What the Eau Claire-based Stand in the Light Choir offers is truly a gift – for its audiences, for its members, for their families, and for everyone involved, including Reitz, a retired DeLong Middle School choral teacher.

“It’s rewarding in some of the same ways,” Reitz says when asked to compare leading an ensemble composed largely of older adults with one made of middle schoolers. “I’m sharing my love of music with you, and you’re loving it, too.”

However, she adds, directing Stand in the Light is a “much more humbling experience.” That’s became the choir was created for adults with memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, or some other form of dementia. Thirteen of the choir’s 31 members fit in this category. The rest are caregivers (spouses, family members, friends, or neighbors) plus a few “ringers” who love to sing and help fill out the choir’s sound. Most choir members are 60-plus, and some are in their 80s. Some of those with dementia are high-functioning, while others need a lot of guidance.

Reitz was recruited to lead the choir by Lisa Wells, a dementia care specialist at the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Eau Claire County. Reitz was uncertain about the idea at first, so to learn more about the concept she attended a rehearsal of the Giving Voice Chorus in Minneapolis, which also includes people with dementia.

It proved to be an inspirational experience. “I went to a rehearsal and I came back and said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” Reitz recalls.

Dementia is a personal issue for Reitz: Her older sister died last year of early-onset dementia at age 68. The choir’s name comes from the title of a song by pop singer Jordan Smith, which has become a staple of the choir’s concerts. It’s a song about love and self-acceptance. “The meaning for me … is that I still have light to give,” Reitz says.

The choir was formed in 2016 and gave its first performance last fall. Audiences and the choir itself have grown, and Reitz hopes to have 50 members by next year. The choir will give its next concert on Thursday, Nov. 16, at its home base, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on Eau Claire’s west side. The concert will include songs by Irving Berlin and The Beatles, some folk tunes, and originals by Osseo native Barry Anderson, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire and went on to a Broadway career. The show will also feature a guest appearance by Broadway performer Jen Burleigh-Bentz of River Falls.

The choir exists in part to reduce the stigma and isolation associated with dementia and to help its members create new memories. “We talk pretty freely about dementia,” Reitz says.

Rehearsals are highly structured: They’re always on Thursday mornings, always begin with treats and social time, and are always at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, as are performances. The music is kept in color-coded binders, with each song in the choir’s repertoire assigned a number, which is displayed on Reitz’s music stand on a card of the corresponding color. And Reitz tries to keep her instructions concrete and unchanging: Once she makes a decision about how a song should be performed, she sticks with it to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Cathy Reitz
Cathy Reitz

But it other ways, Reitz approaches directing Stand in the Light as she would with any other choir: She sets goals which she expects her singers to meet. “When we’re treated like somebody expects something of us, people rise to the occasion,” she explains.
And rise to the occasion they do. During a recent rehearsal, the choir ran through its repertoire with Reitz’s energetic direction and encouragement.

“When you see them singing like this, you don’t know who has difficulties,” says Carol Parsons, a friend of Reitz’s who assists with the choir.

Among the choir’s members are Shirley and Bruce Paulsrud of Eau Claire. Bruce was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia two years ago. The syndrome is the result of neurological degeneration and has impaired Bruce’s ability to communicate. “He can’t speak his words,” Shirley explains, “but he can sing his words.”

A diagnosis of dementia can be devastating to individuals and their families, and the Stand in the Light Choir provides them an opportunity to be comfortable with where they are in life and to express themselves, Shirley adds.

“You can see he’s smiling,” she says after the rehearsal, gesturing toward her tall, grinning husband. “He enjoys coming (and) the camaraderie with people who are struggling with similar issues. Music always fills the soul.”

Iva Peck became involved in the choir after taking part in a memory screening session offered by the Eau Claire County ADRC. While she has not had a formal medical diagnosis of dementia, her performance on the screening and a family history of dementia led her to conclude she had a problem. “It’s given me back some confidence to do something positive – learning new songs and making new friends,” Peck says of joining Stand in the Light. The choir has encouraged her to write and share poems about her experiences, one of which she read during a Stand in the Light’s concerts. The poem, titled “Dementia,” is as follows:

Dementia may have us,
But we have each other.
Dementia may confuse us,
But we have a gentle hand to guide us.
Dementia may sadden us,
But we have each other’s smile.
Dementia may give forgetfulness,
But we have a song to remember.

STAND IN THE LIGHT FALL CONCERT

Stand in the Light will present its fall concert featuring guest artists Jennifer Burleigh-Bentz and Barry Anderson at 6:30pm Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, 1120 Cedar St., Eau Claire. You can learn more about the choir and its events at facebook.com/SITLchoir.