Healing Reflections: "Standing in the Light" by Cathy Reitz
"Standing in the Light"
Story by: Cathy Reitz | Eau Claire, WI
The Stand in the Light Memory Choir uses the power of music to move people with memory loss and their care partners to rediscover themselves, make new friends, laugh together, and contribute to their community.
As a music educator and choral conductor for fifty years, I have seen what music can provide for people. When my sister was diagnosed with early on-set frontal lobe dementia, the need for music in her life became clear. She died in January 2016 and left me the legacy of continuing to use music to serve those who live with memory loss.
We use the power of music to create a safe space where memory loss does not define our members. We are a true community choir that focuses on accepting our singers exactly as they are. Though some of our members have memory loss, we see them as valuable contributors to our community.
Since going virtual we have grown from 52 members in January 2020 to 63 members in January 2021. The fact that this choir grew at a time when we had to go virtual is significant. People living with memory loss need consistency and change is difficult to overcome. The fact that these choir members were willing and able to learn new technology to continue singing with our choir is notable. The many obstacles that they overcame is huge.
Our choir is in Eau Claire, WI, population 68,866. Prior to the pandemic our choir members came from eight surrounding communities across five different counties. Due to the uniqueness of our choir and being the only of its kind around, some members would drive nearly an hour to get to us. After going virtual, we now have choir members from 13 Wisconsin communities from eight different counties. We also have members from Minnesota, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado, Idaho and England. We have been able to connect family members from across the country who would otherwise not be able to sing together or see one another during this time of lockdown.
When the choir went virtual, we reached out for technology support and now have Millennial and Gen Z volunteers that assist with technology. Helping choir members unable to log in to rehearsals, setting up devices for members to use in an easy way, working with individuals (including me as director) how to use technology to our advantage. They also have been instrumental in providing support as we produce our virtual showcases. More importantly than their technology support, they have become active choir members working with individuals in the choir. The need to make our choir intergenerational is clear. Our members now range from 23 to 89. I see people stepping up to help with our choir across the age barrier.
There is a stigma attached to memory loss, that once people are diagnosed, they are no longer capable of living a quality life. Too often family members and friends don’t know how to respond to a loved one’s diagnosis. As a result, the person with memory loss is no longer engaged, people take on tasks for them or they end up isolated with no stimulation. In fact, this response contributes to a more rapid decline. It is important to keep those with memory loss socialized and mentally challenged. One of the reasons we prefer in person rehearsals, in a locale that people must travel to, is to get members out in public, in a different environment, engaging with different people. We make sure there is time to socialize so they can process new information and engage with others. We choose songs that are a mix of familiar and new to challenge choir members without frustrating them. We give public performances not only to provide the choir members an experience, but to show attendees what our singers are capable of. Audience members are continually in awe, seeing what our members have to offer and how they are still contributing members of society. Audience members often share that the concerts are much more than what they anticipated. One choir member's husband commented, "Thank you so much. I saw my wife's eyes light up when she sang. She was back."
Virtual rehearsals can have this effect, too, as observed by one of our newest members. “We can see everyone on the Zoom meeting on the grid screen, and to be able to witness the joy that everyone has is infectious. Particularly uplifting is to be able to see those with the disease ‘awaken’ when the music is sung and played!! Amazing!!” We know we will continue our virtual aspect to serve those unable to come to in person rehearsals. Creating a hybrid rehearsal once we can return to in person rehearsals, will be our next adventure. Yes, adventure not obstacle.
Whether we are virtual or in person and even though we are a “memory choir”, we treat our singers as a community choir with members that just so happen to have memory loss. We are people and singers first. We use the power of music to create a community where memory loss does not matter or define us.
Art by: Isabella Lyste
Hello! My name is Isabella Lyste and I am a very active high school student. I am involved in many extracurriculars like Student Senate. I love art and my favorite medium is acrylic paint on canvas. I first started painting in middle school when my art teacher encouraged me to try it.
My inspiration came from a member of the Stand in the Light Choir, who wrote a story about their experience dealing with COVID-19. Their goal was to aid and move people with memory loss, as well as their care partners by having them sing in a choir. The choir gives them a chance to make new friends, contribute to their community, and rediscover themselves.
For more information about the Healing Reflections gallery or to get involved with the project, contact Sara Martinek.