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Stand in the Light Choir Connects Mother and Daughter

Posted 5/11/2017


Vivian Waltmire is 91 years young. Through her nine plus decades of life she has experienced all kinds of ups and downs. She suffered a stroke, a broken leg, fought cancer twice, and was once told she would never be able to become a mother. When you speak with her it’s obvious she has probably whistled, hummed, or sang her way through every obstacle life has thrown her way.

In 2005 during surgery for colon cancer, Vivian developed a blood clot. The doctors sought to dissolve the clot with Heparin but what they didn’t know was Vivian was allergic to Heparin. Her body reacted with a spasm in her brain which led to dementia.

Though she may not remember what she had for lunch or how many years she’s been living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, there are a couple of things she will never forget; her love for music and her love for her daughter.

“When I taught music I would bring the songs home,” Vivian says. Her daughter Nancy Wendt chimes in, “And the instruments too!”

Vivian smiles and continues, “And we played them at home. We did songs that we could do together. She was a natural,” she says as she looks at Nancy. “I could sing, but she was a natural. We just kind of harmonized together.” 

The two convey a love that only a mother and daughter at this stage of life can understand. They politely interject each other to complement what the other is saying and they touch each other in a way that signifies a deep and genuine bond.

The Illinois native grew up the daughter of a band director in a house filled with the sounds of music, so Vivian said Nancy had no choice but to grow up the same way as her. 

“I was a music teacher, and she just had to (like) music because she lived with me,” she says with a great amount of laughter.

“I remember when I was in college and there was rough times and I would just sing it away, sing it away. Get it out, get it out. Even now, if I can sing it out, sing it out, I’m OK,” Vivian says with a bit more serious of a tone. “I’ve played piano since I was five years old and my parents said practice, practice, practice and I did. It put me through college, and I still enjoy it,” she says proudly.

“It’s your soul. Music is your soul,” comments Nancy loudly enough so Vivian hears her.

“Oh yes! Yes, it is!” says Vivian in agreement. 

“And your solace too,” adds Nancy. 

Now more than ever, that statement is proving true for both Nancy and Vivian. In some ways the mother and daughter roles have flipped as Nancy helps Vivian in instances that Vivian used to assist Nancy.

“Music has always been my solace in life too. It’s been a calming feel for me. If I’m frustrated I can always go to the piano and play. She’s given me that opportunity to do that,” shares Nancy who is now a retired elementary school teacher after 34 years in the Eau Claire Area Schools.

“The music she gave me has allowed me to touch other people too. I can play piano at someone’s wedding and see the joy. Even a funeral, I can see someone appreciate the music that is there and find comfort.”

There’s another place Nancy plays that is bringing her great joy. It’s not just with her own mother, but with more than 20 others with dementia and their caregivers, as Nancy serves as the accompanist of the Stand in the Light Choir in Eau Claire, which rehearses monthly at Grace Willowbrook Assisted Living Apartments, where Vivian now lives.

“It is truly the music experience come round for me. Seeing their smiles is the true gift she gave me,” Nancy says beaming.

The Stand in the Light Choir was started by Cathy Reitz in 2016 after watching the Giving Voice Choir out of Minneapolis. It’s a choir that gives the opportunity for those with Alzheimer’s to sing, although not all members have dementia.

“Music just seems to be that piece to bring anybody back. I see it in our choir; once they start singing you look and it’s like you don’t know who has the dementia and who doesn’t,” says Nancy.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive but fatal disease that affects more than 5 million Americans. Since 2000, death from heart disease has decreased by 14%, but deaths caused by Alzheimer’s have increased by 89%. Brain scan images have shown that the dorsal medial pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with autobiographical memories and emotions, is highly stimulated during music activities. Music memory is in the part of the brain that is last affected by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

“Right now, she could go down to the piano and sit and just play what has been in her brain for a long time. She can come out with her high school song,” explains Nancy.

“It has been there. It’s her go-to when she is sad; it’s her go to when she’s happy. That music has been able to get her through the roughest times in her life. I can remember her being in the hospital after suffering from a stroke. When we put music on her with earbuds, her whole demeanor changed. She had that will, that strength to continue, to survive. And she did,” she recalls.

The Giving Voice Choir was a part of a study that discovered that people with early to mid-stage Alzheimer’s and other dementias felt increased self-esteem, confidence, and a stronger sense of belonging after singing. The choir participants also reported greater attention, learning, mastery, and a shared sense of purpose and hope. Equally as important, care partners reported increased enjoyment, new friendships, personal growth and a decrease in caregiving burden while couples reported improved relationships and a renewal of family togetherness. All of these positive results in part to taking a page out of Vivian’s song book, to ‘sing it out’.

Nancy and Vivian sit side by side as Nancy says, “Mom, what’s your favorite song?”

Vivian pauses and looks up as if trying to remember which one it is. Nancy helps a little, “It’s by Judy Collins.” Vivian still can’t place it, so Nancy continues, “Send in the…” another pause and then together they say, “Clowns. Send in the Clowns.”

“That is my absolute favorite; that I could listen to all day,” says Vivian.

The two begin to discuss their favorites to sing together, which leads to Vivian breaking into “Do, a deer…” and off the duo go singing the infamous track from the Sound of Music. In that moment there is no sign of memories lost.

Vivian says she loved teaching the kindergarteners but she really enjoyed working with the high school choirs and the challenges they brought. But just listening to the banter and the harmonizing between Vivian and Nancy, it’s obvious who has been her favorite pupil all along. An appreciation and understanding for one another that keeps the phrase “like mother, like daughter” alive.

“I was married for ten years before having my son. My mom and dad had to wait 10 years for me,” Nancy shares sweetly. 

“The love. The love they give back to you,” Vivian says when asked about what’s the best part about being a mother all these years. Then she begins to roar with laughter when asked what she’s learned as a mom.

“To keep my mouth shut several times,” she says as her laughter gets louder.

“Oh yes, lots of patience,” says Nancy joining in on the laughter. 

Ironically, Vivian’s favorite part of motherhood, and what she has learned from it, parallel the lessons she has learned from music. Music has loved her back through rough times and has taught her patience, just like her daughter.

So what would Vivian like to share with newer moms?

“Take it easy, go with the flow and I don’t…” she pauses and looks at Nancy, “Did I ever whip you?’ Nancy shakes her head with a laugh. “No, I don’t like that,” continues Vivian. “I would rather talk it out, have a discussion about it.”

“When I was a teen, I was a testy teen and mom just hung tight with me with lots of discussions. As I became a mature, young woman, my mom was always there to talk with and give advice. When I got married, she began to let me be my own person and when I became a mom myself was when I think the two of us came back together. It’s just been sharing stories of a really, really deep love and trust for one another. Then I appreciated what she went through as a mom, now that I was,” says Nancy.

It’s hard to articulate in writing the sounds of two voices intertwined, not just in harmony, but in spirit. The best I can share is that as I sat and watched the two break into Amazing Grace, I was shown that a mother’s love for a child can never be forgotten. Oh, how sweet their sound.

Grace Lutheran Communities has been helping our friends and neighbors in communities all over the Chippewa Valley since 1960. The non-profit organization specializes in rehabilitation, assisted living, skilled nursing, memory care, child care, independent living, and adult day services.