Since 2017, Stockport EDUCATE dementia group and students from Stockport School have come together in song, and they are still managing to rehearse in lockdown.
EDUCATE (Early Dementia Users Co-operative Aiming To Educate) is an award-winning group of people with dementia, who raise awareness about the condition. The Doing Dementia Differently Intergenerational Choir is one of several initiatives that members are involved in and grew out of a dementia awareness tour of school assemblies in Stockport.
Organiser and co-ordinator of EDUCATE, Mark Perry, said: “We didn’t want to lose this connection with students who would be supporting our growing populations living with long term conditions in the not-too-distant future.
“We asked music teachers if they would join us at our annual Doing Dementia Differently event, which celebrates the creative abilities of people with dementia through music, drama and poetry. We were delighted that 350 watched the choir’s first performance at Stockport Plaza.”
About 20 students aged 11-16 are keen members of the choir. Head of Music at Stockport School, Rachel Didcote, explains: “The students get so much from it, and it’s something that we are really proud of. Their motivation to take part is sometimes music or singing, but also through a wish to do community work or a personal connection with dementia.”
The choir’s 2018 Music and Laughter project, funded by the local authority, involved a not-for-profit care home group, a social housing group and an involvement group for people with dementia in Manchester (Fabulous Forgetful Friends). During the year they performed in several care homes and community centres as well as singing carols at a hospital.
In 2019 they were part of The Unforgettable Sound of Music and adaption of the original, with Together Dementia Support (with apologies to Julie Andrews). Watch the video below.
Three success factors
Mark attributes the success of the choir to three key elements: Expertise by experience, voluntary action, and professional and clinical support.
Expertise by experience puts the lived expertise of people with dementia centre stage. Having mapped the musical eras that have most meaning to members they were able to put them in the best position to activate their memories and perform. EDUCATE members teach choir leaders, music teachers and students about the adjustments they need to make to avoid hyper-cognitivism – for example allowing too much information and direction in rehearsals that excludes those that can’t keep up, and using musical arrangements that are too complicated.
Volunteers recruited mainly from retired health and social care professionals, are already experts in enabling and empowering. Members know the things they find difficult, like travelling to rehearsals or finding the loo, will be sorted, and so feel safe to participate.
Professional and clinical support comes from dementia specialist staff on the team and a professional choir leader who have played a part in helping the transition, for at least some members, to screen-based activity.
Spoken from the heart
Choir member John said: “I sang with the St Mary’s parish choir when the BBC recorded us in Stockport market place in 1950. I sang with our intergenerational choir at Stockport Plaza in 2019! The choir we’ve acquired is fantastic.”
Commenting on the success of EDUCATE and the choir, Mark Perry says: “Our members just love having young people around them. It helps them to connect with the youth that is still inside. The EDUCATE group is a fantastic model of how to live with dementia, extending people’s wellness and autonomy.”
Lockdown and beyond
Prior to lockdown, the group would meet regularly, around 10 of them being members of EDUCATE and their partners. Guided by Helen Eadie, a choral leader, singers are still rehearsing virtually from classrooms and homes, allowing them to continue the musical experience. This has been challenging for all, but determination has won through.
As well as singing virtually, members have been exploring other ways of using music such as discussing musical memories, identifying playlists and planning what they might do when group meetings are possible once more.
Of Stockport School’s commitment, Rachel Didcote says: “When we were back at school in the autumn, students would stop me in the corridor and ask ‘Are we going to do the choir?’. They’ve become a little family, a mini-community, and it’s so rewarding for everyone involved.
“The power of music is so amazing. When we are performing, everyone gets that buzz.”
Preparations are afoot to rekindle ambitious pre-COVID plans of a Doing Dementia Differently Ball: joining with a local swing band to put on a performance in the school with people in the group singing solos and duets. With involvement from the art and drama department to provide period context, this promises to be the show that will go on!