The Dementia Podcast

Talking Music: Dementia friendly singing groups and choirs (Part 2)

June 10, 2021 Professor Colm Cunningham
The Dementia Podcast
Talking Music: Dementia friendly singing groups and choirs (Part 2)
Show Notes Transcript

Join Colm and Diana Kerr, as they continue their discussion on the importance of music in the care of someone living with dementia. Diana is an experienced practitioner, researcher, educator and trainer in the field of dementia and learning disability and has spent much of her career advocating for the use of music in improving wellbeing of people with dementia. She was previously the Course Director for the MSc in Dementia Studies at the University of Stirling, Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh and an associate consultant to HammondCare. 

This conversation unpacks the elements of involving people with dementia in choirs and singing groups. Together they describe how to make these groups dementia friendly, the factors involved in the operation of these groups and how to ensure they are meaningful and engaging for those living and caring for someone with dementia. Diana and Colm share the unique stories of members of these groups which showcase how music is truly integral to the care of a person with dementia and their loved ones. 

This episode is sponsored by HammondCare Publishing

Diana’s book 'Singing Groups for people with Dementia' is a guide to setting up and running groups in both community and residential settings. 

The editorial 'The Unforgettables: a chorus for people with dementia with their family members and friends' evaluated a museum program that created a chorus for people with dementia and their family caregivers that rehearsed and performed regularly. 

The research article 'Remini-Sing: A Feasibility Study of Therapeutic Group Singing to Support Relationship Quality and Wellbeing for Community-Dwelling People Living With Dementia and Their Family Caregivers' provides important evidence on the positive effects of singing groups. 

'Does a ‘Singing Together Group’ improve the quality of life of people with a dementia and their carers? A pilot evaluation study' is another piece of evidence that unpacks the effects of singing groups.

For all feedback please email hello@dementiacente.com.au

Colm Cunningham:

Hello to you and welcome back to The Dementia Podcast part two of the power of music engagement for those living with dementia and their carers. I'm your host, Colm Cunningham. And my guest is Diana Kerr, a strong advocate for the use of music, and somebody who's both written a book and researched the importance of music. She's an educator, researcher trainer, and as you'll hear, was my first lecture in my MSc in dementia. In our previous episode, Diana and I were discussing the importance of music and the advice on how to use music as a tool for connection, reminiscence, support, and of course enjoyment. Today we're going to expand on that discussion, but in particular, talk about the benefits and some of the things that you need to think about in structuring singing groups and choirs for those living with dementia. Now you will note a sense of familiarity because we've known each other for 30 years, but let's continue the conversation. So Diana, welcome back to the dementia podcast. And thanks again for joining us. Diana, I am so keen to continue this conversation and about your book. But before we jump into that, I'd love to talk about a good friend of ours. Annabel Meredith She's the daughter of the famous Scottish comedian Chic Murray. So let's talk about Annabel

Diana Kerr:

I think, yes, I funnily enough I saw Annabel the other day and I said I'm going to name check you in case nobody knows Annabel and some people remember Chic Murray, the famous comedian, Scottish comedian, and she's actually his daughter and has inherited him and and indeed, maybe her mother's theatrical ability, amazing facility with music, and just a love of people. And you and I remember that she and this was in I mean, we're talking about the late 80s, early 90s that first of all, she set up these singing these music sessions for people in a home that she was involved in. And what she did very early on, which was quite unusual. Having people come in and play amateurishly I'm not having that. So and she had these three people who came one of them Bob had actually been the first person to teach Nicola Benedetti. Another one was the cellist, from the Czech Philharmonic, and other one had played with a Liverpool, Phil, they were top notch musicians, and they would play this fabulous music. But what she wanted to do was actually have people much more actively engaged and be moved by the music. And really, that was, I suppose my inspiration all those years ago to think how amazing it was to see people transformed. What we need to do is to use music in that way. It is therapeutic, it has an effect on us, and it may mostly makes us feel better and happier. It might make us feel sad, and that can be therapeutic as well. What we need to do is to make music accessible and normal and try and replicate what people have done before. There's an amazing thing is it's been stopped the fundings been stopped. I say this publicly because it's awful. But the Scottish I live in Edinburgh, and Scottish Opera used to after they'd done any opera, they would use the costumes, and then they'd have a few people from the orchestra and a few of the performers. People living with dementia would go along. And they'd have a I think it was 12 weeks might have been six weeks, I can't remember now. Period, when they would rehearse an extract from the opera, it would be an extract that was of a party or something. And it was just a me there was involved dancing and singing. And it was just wonderful. It was noisy and bright and the most fabulous music of course top top top music. It was actually beautiful top notch music and it was not a normal thing. You know, it was something people engaging in and we would go and watch it as if we were watching the opera. It was fabulous. Yeah, so very important that I am absolutely not saying we don't need music therapists we do where that is appropriate. But I think it's really, really important that we don't say we need more music therapists to get music to people with dementia. Yes, we need music therapists but if most people with dementia are going to experience music, we just need ordinary people to do it their carers or volunteers or whatever.

Colm Cunningham:

And just to go do further so let's talk about choirs are acquires the purpose of choir is to have singing for the brain? You've said you know it's very important that we hold on to the effect of enjoying music as people together enjoying music, but I have seen that choirs have, at times been classified or registered as having a purpose that is about the brain and the brain alone?

Diana Kerr:

Yeah, I know I'm going to be very boring later on talking about all the singing groups I'm involved in. But we'll, but of course, one of the things I said there was they are singing groups. And when we started these groups, I'll come back to this later, we were very anxious, not to mention the word brain as you've got dementia, the area of anxiety is your brain. What we want is for people to enjoy themselves and to have fun. One of the issues with choirs is it depends what you mean by a choir, of course, there are many, many, many people with dementia, singing in choirs, because they've been in the choirs for the most of their life or not of their life. And they have subsequently developed dementia, and they've stayed in the choir. And they can stay for a while, and then eventually, obviously, they won't be able to cope and they will have to leave. I suppose the issue is, at what point? And do you ask people to leave a choir? Why would you invite people to join a choir, if you knew you're going to have to ask them to leave. Now, this is a very delicate area. Because some people, particularly in the early stages of dementia, if in the past, they have been in choirs, or even if they just liked the idea of singing in the choir, they may well enjoy going to a choir to sing. However, it's not that straightforward. We've seen things I've seen stuff on the telly of people singing in choirs, and they're clearly enjoying themselves and having a good time. And it seems to be working. However, you have to then think well, what How is that? How is it going to be managed when they can't continue to be there? How do the other choir members feel about that? You know, people join a choir they join it for a reason to produce particular music. How do they feel if they've got someone with dementia next to them who can't remember the directions from the conductor? You know, I think the conductors need to be trained, it's no good. Just saying we'll have people with dementia. I want to say to the conductors, how much do you understand about dementia? You know, if you say to somebody remember in bar 12, you've got to sing the F sharp and can you sing it quieter? Well, actually, someone with dementia can't remember that when they get there. So there's all sorts of issues about choirs. I'm not saying don't have choirs. What I am saying is be very, very cautious.

Colm Cunningham:

And I guess that might have led you on to writing a book called Singing Singing groups for people with dementia care. So tell me, you, I know ended up with quite a number of singing groups across certainly Scotland and that was pre COVID. So tell me why are singing groups good for people with dementia? And what's important to think about if you're post COVID thinking about setting up a group?

Diana Kerr:

We came about the setting up the singing group, because an ex-student of mine in fact, a colleague of yours, a student, that was that, you know, as you know, the lovely Sheila said to me that she was fed up listening to me going on about the importance of music for people with dementia. And it was time I stopped talking the talk and walk the walk and I should put my money where my mouth was. And after some resistance about I haven't got time I said okay, we'll do it. And we set up a singing group in Edinburgh. And it was we did did our research transcript, we said it was in Scotland initially. And we couldn't find really any other groups the same. There were groups in England, the Alzheimer society, singing for the brain groups. And we went to visit a number of those, and they were really helpful. And we, the people we went to see were lovely and gave us lots of information. But we were quite keen not to have the word brain in our description of our groups. And although I think we wouldn't be allowed to because it's theirs theirs anyway, but the important thing about setting up the singing groups was that we thought, well, we first of all thought we'll see if anybody wants to come. And after a few months, we had 80 8zero people in this church hall, which was not good. It was probably a fire, you know, we thought this is a fire risk. And we need to expand. And basically what we did was we expanded the groups and posts by the time the COVID hit us, we had about 20 groups in Scotland, but we also had groups elsewhere. And I had written we'd had people lots of people came to see us, including people from your neck of the woods, and Japan and all sorts of places and I decided the thing to do was to write a book to help people set up their group. And the idea was this, they bought the book, they could set up a singing group. It covers everything that people might need to know everything from the Constitution. How To plan programs, how to do venues, how to raise money, how to train volunteers, everything. And so I wrote the book thinking that would say people coming to visit us, because what happened was people then set up groups and wanted me then to go and see what they were doing. It does take preparation. And that's why I've written the book, you can't, if you don't prepare properly, it'll all fall flat, and then everybody's disappointed. So it has to be properly prepared.

Colm Cunningham:

So properly prepared, give me a few your top three tips on property prepared?

Diana Kerr:

Well, oh, the top three only if I only have three. The thing is, I suppose what I, what I've mostly talked about in the book is about setting up groups with volunteers. But of course, many people will set up groups, it'll be paid, it'll be staff as well, whether it's staff or volunteers, they must know how to respond to people with dementia. And that is critical. I know that sounds bloomin obvious. However, you can't have people taking part in if they don't understand how to respond, because there will be a lot of act things going on besides just the singing, getting the right venue, either in the home or in the community very, very important that if it's in the community, that you have the right access, you know, like public transport, or parking, that the venue is accessible, all those sort of things, all the things I think Mary has done a Mary Marshall has done a podcast about the environment, all those things have to be taken on board as well, you know about about the toilets and access or whatever. And I suppose the third thing is one of the things of course, is that you have a good instrument player that you need someone to play, we usually use a piano, but somebody who can ramp it up, you know, you need somebody. In fact, I've got the pianist coming later who played in our group, and she could ramp anything up, you need to give it some oomph, you know, yes, the music, but also I think the underlying thing is everybody is there to have fun. If you don't have fun, then there's no point in doing it. And it's and it's not about being perfect. It's not about giving a performance. It's not about if I'm leading it I make well you can probably imagine, I'm always getting things wrong, and they love it. When I get it wrong. They are in fact, you know, I've had people shout out your load of rubbish that, you know, when I give the wrong introduction, or whatever, or I think I've even started clapping halfway through a song because I thought I'd finished it. I do that quite often.

Colm Cunningham:

Look, I did give you three, but I'm obviously just trying because you and I could have a podcast that will last two hours. I just know what we're like. But I guess, you know, to your point on volunteers, I guess you've just pointed out the importance of somebody who is skilled and being able to manage your music, but I was also not so rigid about it that actually people are becoming it's a performance rather than something that's enjoyed and has mistakes. And equally, I guess you have volunteers who need to be comfortable on being the welcome group, the people who are making the tea, that there's actually all of these things that need thought through those things.

Diana Kerr:

Yeah. And in the book I've very low and also anybody knows this, it's work with volunteers is you play to volunteers' skills. So somebody says I only want to be in the kitchen, don't ask them to come and sit in with the singing. Or somebody says I hate being in the kitchen, which would be me, then you don't do that. So yes, and it's also about not I mean we've had the experience of most wonderful people, wonderful singers, but who wants it to be perfect, you know, who used to singing and producing wonderful music we do actually the we do produce wonderful music and we will do things like when people come in initially we always sing the same songs that beginning in the end as cues we also do warm ups. Very very important just a bit of warm up to get people going and then and the warm ups can be any sort of acts just more like so you have to remember that people with dementia often have dyspraxia and come organize their bodies but we do simple actually the hokey Cokey is a very good warm up and everybody knows that. But it's very important then that we move on we do use songs in unison. We'll then do songs, partner songs, where we sing two songs together and you get wonderful harmonies and really importantly, we will do songs that people can get up and dance to. And that is brilliant people initially often people come in and they can they're very hesitant even walking in but actually after a while people will get up down so long as often mid people might need some deep side of them the dance, the tune the song that is the best bestest ever song for people to dance to is "I could have danced all night". Absolutely brilliant. Everybody loves it. And in fact, I tend to do it every Time and sometimes I've sort of said I can't do it again this week, and I get booed. So it's a very nice dance.

Colm Cunningham:

From "My Fair Lady".

Diana Kerr:

Yeah, absolutely brilliant. And it's wonderful where people started. And that final bit at the end, when there's a pause, before, "all night", people stop, they know to stop, and they wait. And then they come on the end. It's the most wonderful people love it. We do it two, three times. And the other one is "Beautiful Sunday", which people love. There's a whole load of songs, and certainly in the book, I've recommended some, but actually, I wrote the book five years ago, and I have to say, if I wrote it now, there'd be a lot more in it. You know, you learn as you go along.

Colm Cunningham:

Now, you must have some amazing stories of people. Surprising you and I can think of one particular one which is a story you shared with me about a woman who rarely sang and tend to just smile and sit there. But then you got a surprise

Diana Kerr:

This lady, she had actually been a singer with the big bands, and she used to come, you know, famous people. And she used to come and sit with her husband. And surprisingly, she didn't sing. She smiled the whole time. And they'd be coming for weeks. And she just smiled. And then one day, we were going to do the song. The Andrews Sisters song "Don't sit under the apple tree". And we have the little hats younger sisters used to wear, like, sailor hats or whatever, American sailor hats. And we said, Did anybody want to wear them? and her husband said, Why don't you put it on? And she said no. And they could go on, put it on? No, she put it on, and she was still smiling. And then we started to sing. And she got up. There were about 60 people in the room. She got up, she came up to the front. And she started to sing. And then she started swaying, you know, hips are going, her hands are going and she started going around the group singing to everybody just going up to people singing, just a complete performance. You could imagine her in a slinky red dress, when she was younger, you know, really turning it on. And she sang a brilliant voice. Her husband actually couldn't do anything. I mean, he was just sobbing his heart out. And at the end, everybody clapped her. She bowed, and she went back. And it was just amazing. This woman came back from me. So who she had been really Yeah, yes, brilliant. Yeah. And honestly,

Colm Cunningham:

look, you go,

Diana Kerr:

I was gonna say I could tell you. I mean, I could be what I can tell you hundreds of stories like that of where people have suddenly come alive. I think in the in the book, I tell the story of the lady who, whose husband brought her to the to the group and he said, I don't know I've come somebody said it would be good. But actually, she hasn't spoken for five months. And she had that sort of masked expression, you know, just nothing. And they sat down and she just sat there. So slumped slightly to the side as often is the case. And she just was there and we started the singing and she just stayed still. And then I noticed her fingers tapping her thigh. And then she started to sway. And then she started to vocalize nothing particular. And then she started to sing the words. And by the end of the session, she was singing the songs. And the next morning, this is heart rending. The next morning she woke up and she turned her husband and said, I think we should bake a cake. And they did. Now, you know, why don't we all use music? I'm not saying I am not saying that playing music is going to do that dramatic thing all the time. However, every single session something happens, you know, there's always something worth remarking on. So why don't we use it?

Colm Cunningham:

Diana I guess I'm looking at all the research my team have done on pain reducing people to to people talking more to people's agitation levels going down. We could bore people with the evidence base. But as you say at the end of it all, it's about connection relationship reminiscence and being with the person as we wrap up this latest dementia podcast I guess you've infused us a lot with the importance of music. Is there any final reflections to people listening about music and music groups?

Diana Kerr:

Yeah, my reflections on that would be 11 years ago there were none in Scotland 10 years later because of course we haven't done anything for a year. We had at least 20 groups. Now. how brilliant so just do it and do it because it's fun. Do it because everybody gains. At the end of it. You everybody's happy not just people with dementia, their carers Very, very, very important. We haven't mentioned carers, their carers who come to the community groups get as much from the singing as anybody else, they are able to express themselves, they're able to let themselves go. Also, of course, they see their partner, actually often in a way that they haven't seen them for quite some time. And it's a joy for everybody. And anybody who sings we, our sessions last about an hour. We do have I haven't said this, actually. But it's in the book, we do have refreshments and everything beforehand, because if people have traveled, they need a bit of time to calm down and to settle. So we have tea and coffee, or whatever, and cake and biscuits. And it's also an opportunity for volunteers to go and sit with people and find out what issues there are or whatever and just catch up. But the singing basically, it doesn't matter long as you sing, people will be happy and no expectations of how people ought to sing. But what is surprising is how many people have such fabulous voices. And once they get going, you can see the joy in their face. Why wouldn't you do it?

Colm Cunningham:

Well, Diana, thank you for getting together with me in this conversation. And I know it's a strange one because it's an actual fact I probably wouldn't be sitting in this seat if you hadn't encouraged me when I was knocking through your fireplace in your study one day and was covered in soot. And you asked me had I applied for a job at Sterling's dementia services Development Center before I moved to my current job, and I hadn't and I'm always thankful to you for that and for your determination and passion for supporting people with dementia, including those with intellectual disability and dementia. But that's for another day. Thank you so much, Diana, for joining us on this discussion. This has been so informative and also enjoyable in getting to talk to Diana again, as obviously travel has meant that we haven't seen each other for a while. The enormous impact of music cannot be underestimated in every part of people's lives. And as I mentioned, Diana has done a fantastic resource in this "Singing groups for people with dementia" is her publication. And we've linked it and a number of other really important and useful resources to help you so please click on the links below the podcast. Thanks to HammondCare Publishing for sponsoring this episode. And finally, thank you so much for joining us. We love to hear your feedback and if you got any ideas or thoughts on future podcasts, please email us at hello@dementiacentre.com. Thanks for listening