Dale Lamb leads the Unforgettables during a recent rehearsal.
In a basement room at St. Peter's Church in midtown Manhattan, Dale Lamb jabbed two fingers in the air in time with the music as he made eye contact with his singers. Some were in wheelchairs; one dozed peacefully. People laughed as much as they sang.
"I can do anything better than you," Lamb sang, as he led the women through the showstopper from the 1946 Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun." The men responded gamely: "No, you can't!"
Lamb, a music educator and singer, has led choral groups for much of his career, but none quite like the Unforgettables, a chorus for people with dementia and their caregivers started by Mary Mittelman, director of NYU Langone Medical Center's Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias Family Support Program.
Lamb first accepted a three-week paying gig in 2011 to help lead the newly formed choir, but he decided to keep coming and grew attached to the group.
"This is just a fabulous gift. I don't know how I could do without it," said choir member Barbara Ramsey, an actress and singer whose husband, Jack Naughton, also a performer, was diagnosed with dementia.
The choir helps provide a supportive community for caregivers such as Ramsey, who often feel despair and isolation. The benefits extend to the patients, as well. Performing music together increases their self-esteem and can lessen agitation, Mittelman said. The only requirement for singers is that they commit to attending all the rehearsals and performances.
"What we learned is that people in the early and mid stages of dementia can learn new songs," she said.