Thursday, 24 March 2011

Singing for the Brain!

Sometimes my life takes me to interesting places and events, but sometimes the most memorable are just on the doorstep. I was asked to write an article about the following and I was so moved by the experience that I wanted to share it in my blog...
If you walk past Christchurch on the Stray on a Monday afternoon, you will hear the sound of joyful singing. Step inside and you will see a group of men and women, neatly dressed, singing well-known favourites with such enthusiasm that you might think that you have dropped into a rehearsal for a performance of a singing group. But this group is not rehearsing, they are singing for fun and this is a weekly singing session organised by the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Society.
About forty people are sitting in a semi-circle around pianist and conductor David Andrews, who was for many years director of music at Harrogate Ladies’ College. David keeps up an easy banter with his ‘choir’ and they listen and laugh along with his jokes. Looking round the room it is impossible to tell the carers from those who have dementia - really. Once the music starts, everyone is singing, tapping their feet, clapping in time or whistling. One lady tells me how her husband, who was once a professional cricketer, has forgotten how to sing but whistles perfectly in tune, which he does for me to demonstrate!
David leads them in a selection of songs which are familiar - ranging from wartime favourites to popular folk songs and showstoppers. They sing wonderfully and it’s impossible to listen to their voices soaring in ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and not feel uplifted. 
I am introduced to the group and it is explained that I am going to write an article about them. They are invited to tell me their experiences, to come and talk to me. And they want to do this. There is no shyness - both carers and their partners want to talk to me because their voices are so rarely heard. One lady tells me how her husband has just moved into full-time care rather than be at home with her. She explains that because her family don’t want to be involved, she is unable to continue to care for him on her own. “I had hoped for another six months but I just can’t manage anymore,” she says with obvious regret. Another tells me how, as soon as her husband had been diagnosed, her best friend cut off all communication with her. Dementia is not a condition where friends and family rush to your door to help. 
“Sometimes I’ve had a bad day before I come, but the singing really lifts my mood,” says one carer. One of the important aspects of the group is the opportunity it gives carers to share their burden and talk about their problems with other carers - people who really understand. “You can’t explain it to other people,” says another. The loneliness of the carers is something they bravely bear. Very little conversation with their partner at home, friends and family reluctant to get involved - “It’s wonderful to see a friendly face.”
David tells me how he was surprised by their extraordinary sense of humour. This is repeated again and again in the conversations I have that afternoon. There is laughter and a desire to enjoy every minute of the session. One carer tells me that, for the gentleman she looks after, all the days of the week are the same but singing is Monday and his face lights up when he knows he is coming singing. After the sessions, he can visualise the faces of the other members of the group and he loves to see the younger people who come along to help. Others talk about how they sing the songs when they get home. One gentleman treats me to a word-perfect solo of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” - a song he has known since a boy in Scotland and when the session ends, two gentleman sing a duet - spontaneously and perfectly - and with such pleasure.
One lady who has early onset dementia and is in her fifties tells me how proud they are of their group and that people from other branches of the Alzheimer’s Society come along to see and hear them in action. There is a really good feeling in the room - from the people with dementia who relish the opportunity to sing and enjoy the music and companionship, to the carers who also find a release in the singing and respite in the sharing of their experiences with other carers who understand as only they can.
I come away from the session lifted by the mood and the music, aware that I have been a part of something very special and joyous. As we leave, one lady whose coat I fasten, tells me that when she first came along, she was afraid and really thought she couldn’t sing and now every week it’s the best day of her life. Whatever the magic is that makes this so special, I know that I will never hear the poignant words of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” without remembering the wonderful ‘choir’ at Christchurch on that Monday afternoon.
“If happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?”

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