Together, but apart: Amazing Grace Chorus meets virtually

Virtual rehearsals scheduled June 13, July 11, August 15

Physical distancing and limiting the risk of COVID-19 is hard for everyone. But for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia and their caregivers, the burden of social isolation can be especially difficult.

And for older African Americans, who face a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and are now recognized to be especially hard hit by COVID-19, the stress of the pandemic and home isolation has struck even harder. The Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute (WAI) Regional Milwaukee office is working to support these communities during the pandemic.

One of the office’s programs, The Amazing Grace Chorus®, has continued to hold rehearsals virtually. The chorus consists of people living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. Members perform in concerts several times a year, giving them a chance to share their talent and engage socially. The chorus is also an important opportunity to connect people living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia and their caregivers with resources available to them, including services available from home such as call-in hotlines, virtual support groups, and more. (WAI has created a page of COVID-19 resources for caregiers available here).

Stephanie Houston, Chorus Director and WAI Senior Outreach Specialist, works to keep chorus members engaged with important services they need while they stay at home. And the virtual rehearsals are a way for the members to see each other and socialize, but they also can learn of programs that can help after rehearsals end – such as the Friendly Caller program from the Helen Bader School of Social Work at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and  Jewish Family Services.

“We’re more than a chorus, we’re a program,” Houston said. “We’re socializing, and we’re also reminding them of services they can still get …. it’s providing that wrap-around care even in the midst of COVID-19.”

When the chorus switched to following Wisconsin Safer-at-Home guidelines, many members asked if they could continue to meet somehow, Houston said. With the help of Houston and the chorus conductor team, the Amazing Grace Chorus® performed a virtual rehearsal on May 2, 2020, with 16 members of the chorus and their caregivers joining from their individual homes.

The chorus conductors first led the group through a vocal and physical warm-up, just as they would begin a standard rehearsal.

“I was hearing from the caregivers that they are not doing a lot of activity right now,” Houston said. “So I wanted to make sure they would be engaged, they would be moving, they would be singing.”

The rehearsal was two hours at the same time the group usually meets and they tried to replicate a typical rehearsal format. Prior to the date, Houston created a PowerPoint presentation with the song lyrics and contacted members individually to practice accessing the call and following the slides.

During the rehearsal, Houston said she had to keep the participants muted for much of it (as many remote workers have learned – having a group meeting with many participants can lead to audio disruptions). But at a certain point, she un-muted all of the attendees’ microphones and listened in. She heard the Amazing Grace Chorus® in its amazing form, each member singing enthusiastically from home.

“I think there was no one who left the event without feeling encouraged and inspired,” she said.

The chorus is continuing with virtual meetings in June, July and August. The next virtual rehearsal is scheduled June 13, 2020. In the fall, they hope to build to two virtual rehearsals a month.

Although video calls cannot take the place of meeting in person, they do offer one advantage of allowing choir members who have moved away from Milwaukee to participate. The May virtual rehearsal included a chorus member who had moved out of town in 2019. Another member was able to attend from Mississippi.

“We love to come together and we love singing, but what we are also doing is having an opportunity to check-in, to say hello,” Houston said. “We’re coming together to get some respite and support from one another.”

More about the WAI Regional Milwaukee Office and the chorus:

The WAI Regional Milwaukee office works to provide support, advocacy and resources for people of color facing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia. Founded in 2008, the office now reaches more than 30,000 individuals and households each year.

As part of its mission, the office developed The Amazing Grace Chorus®  Started in 2014, the chorus is a Milwaukee-based, diverse chorus made of people living with dementia and their caregivers. The goal of the chorus is to increase social engagement for people living with dementia. The chorus has been selected to participate in a national campaign, AlzheimHER’s Chorus, a collaborative effort of the Alzheimer’s Association and Maria Shriver’s Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement.

Alzheimer’s disease is a public health crisis with a devastating effect on people of color. African Americans are nearly two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than white Americans, and Latino Americans are one and one-half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other dementia than white Americans. Both populations face substantially higher hospital, physician, and home-health care costs. Despite this public health crisis, communities of color are under diagnosed and under represented in health initiatives studying Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. The WAI Regional Milwaukee Office works to address these disparities through education, advocacy and resources.