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Sing Here Now choir members, Alzheimer's disease patients and caregivers, get ready for May 9 concert.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Crystal Akins leads members of the Sing Here Now choir through a recent rehearsal. The choir, which includes people with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers, will perform in concert May 9 at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Beaverton.The room goes quiet before Lloyd Labasan begins to channel Johnny Mathis.

The 66-year-old’s solo lifts from the back of the choir room at Beaverton’s Southminster Presbyterian Church.

The more I read the papers

The less I comprehend

The world and all its capers

And how it all will end

Nothing seems to be lasting

But that isn't our affair

We've got something permanent

I know, in the way we kiss

The remaining singers in the room have been following the lyrics, and now, all their voices rise up with Labasan’s and fill the room.

“It's very clear,” they sing, “Our love his here to stay.”

Then the room falls silent and eyes lock on Labasan.

“Oh. Is it mine?” he says, looking first at conductor Crystal Akins and then down at the sheet music clutched in his hands. “Where are we now?”

It’s the kind of hitch that any musical group has during practice sessions, but the Sing Here Now choir probably takes such things in stride more than most groups.

Half its members have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or otherwise are struggling with memory loss. Most of the rest are the wives, husbands and friends who take care of them. A recent practice session proved that both halves of the choir can laugh at themselves.

The Oregon Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association started the twice-annual, eight-week choir program in Portland four years ago and later added the Beaverton group, which during this session includes six people with cognitive disorders as well as their caregivers and a couple volunteers.

Both groups will come together to present a spring concert on May 9 at Southminster.

Music lovers shouldn’t let Labasan’s brief lapse fool them — these singers have some chops.

Akins and pianist Steve Aman put the choir through its paces for more than an hour as it polished songs for the performance, starting with vocal exercises and then launching into a variety of songs, ranging from the easy (“You Are My Sunshine”) to the challenging (“Somos El Barco”).

“These are the people who are going to change the stigma around the disease,” said Dawn Iwamasa, coordinator for association’s early-stage program, which also offers art, exercise and social activities. “They want to perform. They’re motivated. They want the story heard.”

“When we put on these concerts, people come and see Alzheimer’s is not just what they think it is,” said Kevin Fillo, who performs with his wife, Heidi, who was diagnosed with an early-onset form of the disease three years ago at age 51.

“I’ve just always loved music,” Heidi Fillo said. “I think all of us are a little bit of — ” she said, pausing.

“Hams,” her husband said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Hams.”

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Don Petersen takes a moment with his wife, Judi, during a recent Sing Here Now choir rehearsal. Judi Petersen is one of several members in her family diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.A love of music brings them together, and togetherness brings them the social interaction that many people with Alzheimer’s otherwise lack.

Iwamasa said people with Alzheimer’s disease not only can reap cognitive benefits from learning new things, they also fare better simply by being engaged with others.

“You tend to get isolated with this disease,” Kevin Fillo said. “We come in here and all of that is left behind.”

“It’s been amazing at how much Curtis benefits,” Barbara Grafton said of her husband, a former chiropractor who also was diagnosed at a relatively younger age.

“It was good for me to have all of these good people, just at the right time,” said Curtis Grafton, who turns 59 this month. “It helped me a lot.”

“Depression is the killer. Humor is the life-saver,” said Doyce “Spec” Waldrip, the group’s senior member who just turned 90. He is battling symptoms of Alzheimer's but hasn’t lost his flair for comedy. “That’s why they call me 'Chuckles.'”

“There’s some people that wouldn’t get that silly,” said Judi Petersen, one of a string of family members diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “It’s fun.”

“It’s pretty well shown that music is uplifting for people in this situation,” said her husband, Don.

“Here, we’re all in the same boat and we’re teaching each other how to row,” Kevin Fillo said.

Labasan, who also was a soloist last fall, has noticed the effects of memory loss but finds that participation in Sing Here Now is inspirational.

“It lets me know that whatever problem I have … these people are making a good life for themselves with a good attitude,” said Labasan, who had his own take on why the weekly sessions help him.

“This is group therapy on steroids.”

Sing Here Now spring concert

What: Beaverton and Portland Sing Here Now choirs will perform. Members include patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, May 9

Where: Southminster Presbyterian Church, 12250 Southwest Denney Road, Beaverton

Cost: Free, but donations accepted

By Eric Apalategui
Beaverton Reporter
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