Marv Lofquist leans on his wife, Elaine, to help put on his shoes in the morning or remind him which way the bathroom is in their Golden Valley apartment. But when they sing together, it's often Marv's bass-baritone voice that leads the way.

More than a decade into his Alzheimer's diagnosis, Marv can still read sheet music at first glance and often knows the notes before his wife does. When the couple, both 80, rehearse with their choir, Elaine can forget what might seem like an all-consuming reality: that she is Marv's primary caregiver.

"I feel like we're on a date together, doing something we both enjoy," says Elaine, who started singing with Marv when they were in the high school choir. "You forget about your day-to-day frustrations. Singing is something we've been able to do for years."

Dementia is a word thief. A memory twister. A menace for navigation. But somehow, people who can't remember names or a conversation from just minutes ago can still sing, locking into lyrics a half-century old. Music gives dementia patients a variety of benefits for brain health, and emerging research shows it can also strengthen their relationships with their care partners.

Those benefits were on full display when I visited a rehearsal for the Lofquists' choir, Giving Voice, which was formed a decade ago in Minnesota for people with dementia and their caregivers. The network has blossomed into a national movement, having helped launch 60 similar choruses across the country and currently operating five in the Twin Cities. The local choirs are preparing for a 10th anniversary concert at Orchestra Hall on June 9.

Performing publicly, and bringing joy to a live audience, is a critical part of Giving Voice's mission. The performances show that people can retain their dignity and sense of purpose well after diagnosis. See a show, said executive director Eyleen Braaten, and "you might just change your mind about what it's like to live with dementia."

Squeezed into the pews at Meetinghouse Church in Edina, many members living with Alzheimer's sing, dance, play simple instruments and sway to the beat.

"This church has never seen so many hips moving!" applauded Joey Clark, one of Giving Voice's choral directors, leading about 175 people in vocal warmups.

Among the movers and shakers were another couple, Concepcion Galvan and Angel Torres. Galvan was diagnosed with dementia in 2012, and her symptoms have escalated over the years. But when she sings in the choir, Galvan says, it reminds her of herself.

Torres, a retired welder, said singing rekindles a vivacity in his wife.

"She and I used to sing all the time in the church or to each other, so coming back to the choir makes her remember that and puts us back to when we were younger," he said through an interpreter. "What's in the past, she remembers well. The lyrics, she knows."

The science of why

Musical memory is often the last to recede for people with dementia. But why is that?

Dr. Vijay Ramanan, a cognitive neurologist at Mayo Clinic, says one likely explanation is that music calls on different parts of the brain, involving connections that crisscross the organ. Because music is not housed in one central area of the brain, the ability to sing or play an instrument can remain intact long after other functions go. Hearing music can also invoke emotions and other memories associated with a particular song.

Vladimir Garrido Biagetti, a Giving Voice artistic director who leads the Sabios Cantores chorus in Minneapolis, works a lot with first-generation Latino elders. Many have experienced isolation in Minnesota after their kids moved away.

When he was getting to know the choral members, he asked them open-ended questions about the music from their childhoods. They mentioned the rhythm of crickets while they worked on the farms. Or Indigenous folk music. Garrido Biagetti has incorporated those elements, along with lyrics in Spanish, into the songs they now sing.

"This is a way for them to go way back in the past," says Garrido Biagetti. "They feel like they matter. They have a place. They have a voice."

Yet their brilliance can emerge when learning new music, as well. He remembers Galvan, the woman with Alzheimer's, looking particularly lost at rehearsal one day. But together, they started creating original verses and a chorus, and she just took off. "She was jamming," he recalled. "The lyrics didn't exist, but she was singing them."

Music is a complex activity, Ramanan explained. Processing or playing music stimulates new connections between brain cells and strengthens existing ones. And when making music with friends and family, it deepens social bonds — which might have suffered during the pandemic. In his practice, he's worked with patients whose families have noticed steep cognitive declines when we were all shuttered inside.

It's encouraging to hear about programs that engage people with dementia as well as those caring for them in the long haul, he said. Singing is one way to reclaim joy, for both the patient and the care partner.

"The management of Alzheimer's disease can't all be about medications and treating the disease specifically," Ramanan said. "It has to be about the whole person, and that includes their loved ones, as well."

As teens, Galvan and Torres lived across the street from each other in Mexico. Back then, a song by Argentine singer Leo Dan, "Esa Pared," became the couple's anthem. It's about a wall that separates two lovers, a metaphor for their childhood, when they were young neighbors in love, living apart.

Today, that barrier is Galvan's dementia, but music is one bridge that keeps the couple connected.

Torres still sings the song to her every day, and his wife sings back.

"I can see her remembering everything," he said, "so we keep singing it."

If you go

Five Twin Cities choruses operated by Giving Voice will perform together at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis at 2 p.m. on June 9. Tickets are at