ROME — Fifteen elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease from Bonheiden, Belgium, came to Rome for a five-day pilgrimage with Cardinal Jozef De Kesel, archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, on April 2. All of them are part of the “Rainbow Choir” at a home for the elderly in Bonheiden.

The group met the Holy Father before his April 3 general audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall. “I think your song is made more precious by your vulnerability,” said Pope Francis to the senior singers, highlighting the consoling power of singing together in bearing the burden of the disease.

Some representatives of the home as well as family members of the choir took part in the trip, which was hallmarked by encouragement and support from the Holy Father.

 

A ‘Rainbow’ of Imperfection

“I think that the fact of putting together our frailties and mutually accepting them is the most beautiful ‘hymn,’ the harmony most pleasing to God, a ‘rainbow’ — not of perfections, but of imperfections!” the Pope said. “Then, when I saw the conductor, I thought: He has forgotten the baton! But then I saw that his baton is tenderness.” Such tenderness, he added, makes us all more human and allows us to fulfill the Fourth Commandment to honor the elderly. “Perhaps some of them have lost their memory, but they are the symbol of the memory of a people; they are the roots of our homeland, of our humanity. They are the roots, and the young must go there to take the sap from the roots, to carry civilization onwards.”

The Rainbow Choir, which has about 50 members in total, was founded in 2010, right after Christmas. Filip Zutterman, a lay chaplain, used to announce the birth of Jesus Christ to the residents of the center on Christmas Eve, but the latter couldn’t concentrate enough to understand the meaning of the Good News, and most of them couldn’t stay awake. “One day, I started singing Christmas songs, and they suddenly woke up,” Zutterman — now choirmaster of the Rainbow Choir — told the Register at the end of the concert they performed April 4 at the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul on the Caelian Hill. “Therefore, I decided to sing more often,” he added.

One day, after a half-hour concert of Christian songs at the care center, a young lady came to see him, crying with joy, and explained that her mother, who hadn’t been able to speak for a year, suddenly started singing when she heard the songs. “This is how it all started,” Zutterman said. “More people joined the choir, and it also attracted family members of the home residents that could therefore spend more quality times with them.”.

Since then, Dirk Van Herpe, the director of the Bonheiden center, has been trying to spread the choir concept to other residential homes in Flanders and throughout Belgium, and he has been organizing more and more concerts. “Music unifies people. When words lack, there is music, because music is made of emotions,” he said.

 

The Power of Music

Even though most of the choir members have lost a significant part of their memories, the Rainbow Choir is able to sing songs they used to sing in their childhood, attesting to the awareness of the stimulating and healing power of music on memory. Related research has grown over the past decade, and several studies have been dedicated to the subject. The 2012 documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, by the nonprofit organization Music and Memory, shows how a man in a nursing home reacts to listening to one of his favorite songs. Soon after its release online, the film went viral, receiving hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

According to Emmanuel Bigand, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bourgogne and director of a research department at the French National Center for Scientific Research, music is automatically processed by the brain and stored in implicit memory.

“Long before birth, babies memorize pieces of music which they are able to recognize one year after they are born without having heard them again in the meantime,” he says. “At the other end of life, even when linguistic activities fade away, and particularly in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, music remains accessible. Not only does it impart a desire to communicate, smile and sing; it also reawakens the memories and events with which it is associated.”

It is a strong sign of hope for such elderly people, who are so often neglected by postmodern societies and cut off from their families. “By singing together, the residents create a bridge to their past, a past in which they were still in good shape, physically and mentally,” Cardinal Josef De Kesel told the Register. This unprecedented pilgrimage, the cardinal said, is a clear and convincing invitation to society not to exclude people who are considered “useless.” Such rejection, in his opinion, is one of the greatest dangers of our time.

“The very fact that we organized a pilgrimage specially for these people, the fact that we brought them here in Rome, is a strong message,” he said. “This is a modest initiative, but it is symbolically highly significant.”

 

Against the ‘Throwaway Culture’

Such an initiative takes place in the context of increasing concern about the spread of a utilitarian culture regarding ailing persons in Belgium. Euthanasia in this country was authorized under some conditions in 2002, and Belgium is now one of the three European nations — with Netherlands and Luxembourg — to have legalized it. Since 2014, such laws were expanded to minors with no age limits, provided that they have the faculty to decide for themselves. The contours of the law are not very clear for people with neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s, since it is difficult to ensure the patient is lucid enough to make the decision to end his or her life. A 2017 study by BMC Psychiatry showed the proportion of euthanasia cases with mental disorders represented 0.5% of all cases reported in the period 2002-2007, increasing from 2008 onwards to 3% of all cases reported in 2013.

The Rainbow Choir is the antithesis of the culture-of-death mentality.

The elderly ensemble ended their Roman visit with a concert at the Belgian Embassy to the Holy See on April 5, in the presence of Belgian ambassador John Cornet d’Elzius.

“We’ve been criticized by various people in Belgium for organizing this trip to Rome, as they thought it was pointless,” said Van Herpe, who said such an attitude reflects a profound lack of consideration for and respect of the elderly.

But through the trip, the singers were quite the witnesses to the culture of life, as societal disregard for the elderly underscores choirmaster Zutterman’s commitment to the Rainbow Choir.

“They are so important,” Zutterman told the Register. “They are our grandmothers, our grandfathers; they are our heritage. We want to value their presence on earth and give them dignity.”

Europe correspondent Solène Tadié writes from Rome.