BALTIMORE >> Gone are the bright lights and the 100-piece orchestra. There’s no Luciano Pavarotti to share this stage. It isn’t Carnegie Hall, but a picnic table at Lake Roland.
Norma Griner performs here now.
From a little speaker comes a jazzy saxophone. A cellphone begins recording. Her fingers tap-tap-tap the table. The notes quicken; her head bounces.
“Feel it,” says Larry Griner, her son and caregiver. “Feel it!”
Her thin arms rise up to conduct a soprano sax. Without a sound, her face presents a world of expression: her eyes wide, brows arching to the beat. A smile breaks. She’s hand-jiving at passersby. On her head, a goofy turkey hat wobbles.
It’s a charming scene repeated day after day at this Baltimore County park. Alzheimer’s disease fogs her memory and erases some lyrics, but the music moves her still.
Larry shares these performances on Facebook and YouTube. There’s Norma hand-jiving to Kenny G, singing a ditty about her love of chocolate, or making strangers cry by singing “Over the Rainbow.” Sometimes she sings; sometimes she does everything but sing along, moving her hands in time and demonstrating love, joy and astonishment with her expressions.
Alzheimer’s caregivers watch the recordings from around the country, thousands of them. Fans flood her mailbox with silly hats and oversize Hershey bars. In Amarillo, Texas, one woman starts her day with Norma’s newest video.
Norma spent her life singing with Baltimore choruses. Who would guess she has her biggest audience at age 91?
Last summer, a caregiver flew in from Washington state to hear her sing. Another caregiver traveled from Florida. Caregivers want this magic in their homes: something to spark the mind of a loved one with dementia. This Facebook singer from Baltimore offers them hope for their parents and spouses, of richer endings with grace and dignity.
“It’s on my bucket list to go see her. I would like nothing better than to sit in that park and have lunch,” said Dana Sullivan of Alabama, by phone. She cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s. “He doesn’t care anything for music the way Ms. Norma does. I would hope one day that I could engage him, like Larry does with his mother.”
A burly pharmaceuticals salesman from Southern California, Larry Griner leans into this unlikely role. He comforts caregivers online and promotes his videos of his mother. “Queen of the Hand Jive,” he calls her.
It’s a long way indeed from chorus alto. Altos never sing alone, The Baltimore Sun wrote of Norma 20 years ago. That’s when the old Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus disbanded and for the first time in decades she had no stage.
Born in Philadelphia, she learned to read music during elementary school. On Saturdays the family radio was tuned to the Metropolitan Opera; on Sundays, the New York Philharmonic. She sang in choirs while studying languages at Temple University and later in Baltimore. As an Air Force wife in Germany, she reveled in the music.
Divorced in 1975 and raising four children in northwestern Baltimore, she wrung from her days moments for the music. Theirs was the only house around filled with Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Verdi, Schubert, Tchaikovsky.
The single Black mother kept a disciplined household: Clean the bathroom, take out the trash, rake the leaves. Her children knew to have dinner ready when she rushed home from work at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn with just enough time to eat before choir practice.
A pianist herself, she sent all four of them for lessons at Baltimore’s renowned conservatory, the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. Pick an instrument, she said. She retired in 1989 and devoted more time to music. As she told The Sun in 2002, Wednesdays were for church choir; Thursdays, for attending symphony concerts. Some Fridays, she attended the opera.
She reserved Tuesdays for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus; she sang 24 years with the group. And then others: Westminster Choral Arts Society and the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore. The music took her to England and Austria, twice to Carnegie Hall in New York. Once in Philadelphia, she shared a stage with 200 singers and Pavarotti.
Norma surrounded herself with the music into her 80s. Saturday afternoons, she listened to the Metropolitan Opera while tending her rose bushes.
In 2012 she fell and broke her ankle. Another son, Howard Griner, moved in to help with her recovery and found the doctor’s letters. The diagnoses had come four years earlier, a revelation that brought her family more answers than shock. They had noticed that she seemed forgetful and, at times, disoriented.
Alzheimer’s disease slowly destroys memory and thinking. It’s the most common type of dementia. Estimates put at 6 million the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s, about the population of Maryland, but that number’s rising fast. A study in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia predicts the number will increase to 14 million Americans by 2060.
Unmarried in California, Larry moved his belongings to a storage unit and flew home in 2013 to relieve Howard as caregiver. He figured to stay a few months until they resolved their mother’s long-term care.
“It broke me in two weeks,” he said.
“Sundowners” is a term for those whose grasp on reality sinks with the daylight. Imagine an evening trying to convince Mom or Dad — over and over and over again — that they’re safe in their own home.
Where am I? Can you take me home? Where am I? Who are you? Where am I?
I already told you!
Larry rarely heard his mother curse before. Now, she did and he cursed back. Then he lay in the twin bed of his childhood and cried. Larry learned he could snap. He felt guilty and exhausted.
And so, he resigned himself to visit nursing homes. Larry found the staffs friendly and rooms clean, but he saw men and women sitting in parked wheelchairs staring out windows. They looked oblivious to a world around them. Depressed, he resolved to keep his mother home as long as possible.
Over the next five years, Howard lived with their mother. Larry came home for stretches to help.
By then their father had dementia, too. Unable to care for two parents apart, the sons fashioned a bedroom in the den and moved their dad into Mom’s house. Norma and her ex-husband had been divorced 45 years, but they accepted a shared household with a shrug. Howard, now 61, managed with a sense of humor.
“Their memories were so bad,” he said, “they couldn’t remember how much they couldn’t stand each other.”
But even with help of a hired caregiver, he wore out. So Larry resigned from his job in medical sales three years ago and moved home. Within months, his father died.
Larry developed tricks to get his mom and himself through the days. He typed and laminated all the answers to her questions. “Read the paper, Mom,” he tells her. Those with advanced Alzheimer’s lose the sense of taste, but research suggests a sweet tooth fades last. Larry found he could perk up his mother with chocolate. Then, of course, the music.
When he played her favorite songs, Norma came alive. She might not remember where she was, but she could belt out “Lean on Me.” The bursts of vigor moved Larry. He began to record and share her performances online.
He had stumbled upon something doctors have long known. Therapists have used music for years to engage Alzheimer’s patients and draw them out of the fog. The disease damages parts of the brain that store memories; music activates the same parts. Like jump-starting a car, music stimulates parts of the brain otherwise left to atrophy from the disease.
“A person who has had lifelong engagement with music is likely to experience a more powerful activation,” said Dr. Alexander Pantelyat, an assistant professor of neurology and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine.
It’s the same force at work in a video that captured hearts around the world of a ballerina with dementia who finds strength to dance in her wheelchair upon hearing “Swan Lake.”
While this power of music has been generally understood, only recently have research institutions begun to study it. In 2019 the National Institutes of Health awarded $20 million to explore ways music might treat neurological disorders.
“We know that the beat of a metronome can steady the gait of someone with Parkinson’s disease, for example, but we don’t fully understand how that happens,” National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis S. Collins said at the time.
At Hopkins, Pantelyat plans a study this year to examine how music unlocks autobiographical memories of Alzheimer’s patients.
As of Jan. 1 the Maryland Department of Health began to require music therapists to be licensed with the state, opening the door for health insurance to pay for music therapy. Music therapists help a patient identify songs to activate the memory and develop a listening program.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Pantelyat said. “There’s an explosion of research dollars going to music-based interventions.”
Meanwhile, Larry discovered a worldwide audience for his mother’s videos. He tapped into an online support group for dementia caregivers called Molly’s Movement. Caregivers from as far as Australia heard Norma sing. Each day, he shared a new video. There she was in a headband of yellow tulips, singing along with a John Denver recording. And there in a rockin’ pink wig hand-jiving to Aerosmith.
Larry came to understand he wasn’t making videos for Alzheimer’s patients, but for their caregivers.
“I already know what’s going to come from the loved one. They’re the only one who’s consistent. It’s ‘Groundhog Day,’” he said. “For the caregiver it’s all the intangibles of ‘Did I have a good day today? Am I going to lose my patience? How do I deal with this?’”
Larry, 63, knows he can’t continue this forever. He lives off his retirement savings, and his mother’s disease progresses. Some days, even the music won’t reach her.
For now he seizes on mild weather for another trip to Lake Roland where his mother will sing for strangers. When her mind’s alight with music, she’s that independent woman who raised four kids and sang around the world. Norma hasn’t lost her pluck.
“Look at him,” she said, finishing a song for a stranger. “He’s kinda cute.”
“Are you flirting, Mom?”
“No, I’m not gonna flirt.” She flashes a grin. “Not unless he wants me to.”