Singers in Parkinson’s Chorus find inspiration and meaning
SHREWSBURY, Mass. (AP) — Last Monday was a big day for Helen Chase.
Not only is it the day that she attends the Parkinson’s Chorus of Central Massachusetts, her fellow chorus members celebrated her 81st birthday with her.
“The chorus is the most important thing in my life,” the Worcester resident said. “It keeps me going. It keeps me inspired. And I’m dedicated to being here.”
Ms. Chase has been in the chorus for two years and has had Parkinson’s for 25 years.
“It is progressive disease, and I have seen many changes in my life,” she said. “I used to do a lot of traveling and I’m glad I did when I did. Now I can’t travel anymore, but I come faithfully to this group. And I wanted to share my birthday with them because they are the most important people in my life.”
Ms. Chase’s son, Gary Chase, brought in a big birthday cake for the festivities.
“I think it’s awesome,” Mr. Chase said. “When I talk to her about her life, the chorus seems to be the most meaningful part of it now. This is her socialization, and it’s with her peers who all have the same illness, and that’s good for her. She loves it.”
As the members of Parkinson’s Chorus of Central Massachusetts sang the lilting refrain from the “West Side Story” classic “Somewhere” in the confines of the First Congregational Church, it’s evident there is a place for Parkinson’s disease sufferers in the area, like Ms. Chase, to join together and feel good about themselves.
David Sequeira, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 20 years ago, has been in the chorus since it started in September 2015.
“The chorus is fantastic,” the 81-year Worcester resident said. “It really keeps me going.”
Mr. Sequeira loves singing Italian songs and is quite good at it, so much so chorus director Denis Coughlin added the Dean Martin signature tune “That’s Amore” to the group’s repertoire.
“If you watch him (Mr. Sequeira), he can barely walk,” Mr. Coughlin said. “But when he does his little introduction ‘In Napoli, where love is king, when boy meets girl, here’s what they sing,’ he comes alive. What more can you ask?”
Mr. Sequeira’s wife, Martha, feels the chorus has made a big difference in her husband’s life.
“He’s more vocal. He’s singing all the time. He sings at home, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin,” Mrs. Sequeira said. “His voice is not as good as it used to be but at least he’s using it.”
Carron Mentzer has been in the Parkinson’s Chorus of Central Massachusetts for more than a year and has been a Parkinson’s sufferer for seven years.
“I love it. It’s the highlight of my week,” the 73-year-old Holden resident said. “I don’t like it when I can’t come. When there’s a holiday, I’d just as soon be here.”
David Russell, the chorus’s volunteer facilitator, said the Parkinson’s Chorus of Central Massachusetts is actually a byproduct of a clinical research project led by Kelly Richardson, a speech-language pathologist and assistant professor in the department of communication disorders in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst.
“They went through a 12-week program to see whether doing vocal exercises, physical exercises and singing would be helpful for Parkinson’s patients, in terms of helping them to speak more easily, loudly or clearly,” Mr. Russell said. “And after that 12 weeks, they did find there was improvement as they had predicted, and the people who were involved, some of which are still here, they were so impressed that they just stuck together as a group.”
Mr. Russell, who is a member of the church and is a retired speech pathologist, said his involvement in the chorus is very rewarding because of the kind of joy and reinforcement of spirit he sees it brings to the participants.
“You have people who have a diagnosis that would be considered a disability and, in some sense, it is. But still they want to carry on, be as normal as they can and help themselves,” Mr. Russell said. “I remember at one place there was this man who came out. They wheeled him out to be part of the audience. He looked like he wasn’t relating to too much of anything and, pretty soon, he was just singing along. That’s just super.”
Wendy Driscoll has had Parkinson’s since 2003. She, too, has been with the chorus since the beginning.
“We’re learning to be comfortable with each and with our bodies and with the glitches that we all have but are different from each other,” the 77-year-old Westboro resident said. “And that’s one real benefit. There’s a place you can go where you walk in and you’re perfectly acceptable as you are.”
Ms. Driscoll, who had a singing voice going in and has been singing in choruses all her life, said the chorus group started with nothing other than a lot of shyness, hesitation and self-doubt and has blossomed into something that’s not that bad and is getting better and better.
“Most of us were just people who sang to our grandkids, but our singing has improved,” she said. “And the main reason that we started doing it in the first place was to get an increase in our volume because the voices get soft ... We’re making a sound now. He (Mr. Coughlin) calls us a band.”
The Parkinson’s Chorus of Central Massachusetts receives ongoing support from the American Parkinson Disease Association, Massachusetts Chapter, while the First Congregational Church provides the space. No singing experience is necessary and it’s free to join.
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com