Singing in front of others can be daunting. But as members of the New Dementians Choir have discovered, it can also be a fun way to create a diverse community that embraces all people, regardless of their age, culture, or level of cognition.
With support from the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI)’s Spark program, program coordinator, Dorothy Leclair, and music therapist, Jennyfer Hatch, started the New Dementians Choir once they realized how much people living with dementia in their community enjoyed singing and being around music.
“We started by including music in our Dementia Friendly café,” Hatch explains. “We then expanded our programming to allow people living with dementia and their care partners to come together in a safe space to sing, share stories, and really process things through music.”
The choir has proven to be more than a creative outlet. It’s an example of how family caregivers can expand their repertoire of engaging activities for their loved ones.
“Without saying a word to care partners, we are showing them that they too can engage their family members through music therapy in a cost-effective way at home,” adds Leclair.
In doing so, the New Dementians Choir broadens the tools that caregivers can use to help their family members maintain good mental health and stay connected to their community.
Increasing Caregiving Capacities in Families and the Community
Equipping caregivers with support, guidance, and practical tools is essential to helping people living with dementia thrive in their setting of choice (which often happens to be their home[i]). It also reduces caregiver burnout and provides savings to the overall healthcare system.
The choir is also changing how people in the community think about those living with dementia. Hatch and Leclair often see perspectives shift right before their eyes, as they work through a piece of music, like choir favourite, Love Me Tender by Elvis Presley:
“One of our members, who has early-onset dementia, had a brother-in-law who was uncertain about how best to support him without redirecting or controlling his behaviour,” Leclair explains. “One day, the brother-in-law just took my hands – there were tears in his eyes – I could see that it finally clicked for him: people with dementia are still people and don’t need their behaviour corrected to hide their cognition.”
Changing how a community thinks about and interacts with older adults is critical for combatting ageism and the stigma surrounding dementia – an approach CABHI seeks to support in many of the projects and solutions it fosters. Victory Obiefuna, one of the younger members of the choir, was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and inclusive nature of New Dementians. “Everyone was so welcoming and willing to share their wisdom, which I have benefited from and appreciate tremendously.”
Only when communities value their older adults and the people who care for them, can healthy aging and longevity occur. On the flip-side, ageism strips our society of the robust contributions of older adults and hinders our healthcare system from providing quality care. The New Dementians Choir offers a model for an anti-ageist community where everyone is a valuable contributor, regardless of their age or cognitive ability.
Today, the New Dementians Choir meets weekly on Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions. Despite this change, they continue to harvest the power of music to support people living with dementia and their caregivers, especially as they grapple with the uncertainties of the pandemic. The online platform has even allowed them to include people from outside the Burnaby area, according to Hatch.
While they are glad the choir continues to thrive during the pandemic, Leclair and Hatch look forward to the day when they can meet in-person again to sing the song that has meant so much to their members, and captures the spirit of what New Dementians is all about:
Love me tender, love me sweet
Never let me go
You have made my life complete
And I love you so.
Elvis Presley, 1956