Singing away the dementia barriers
Since he set up Dementia Support East Sussex to promote singing as a means of combating the social isolation inflicted by dementia, chair Cliff Slack has been taken aback by the enthusiastic response the initiative has aroused. As the Christmas concert approaches, he brings Nick Terdre up to speed with the progress made this year.
Dementia Support East Sussex now runs 11 groups across East Sussex – three in the Heathfield area, two each in Bexhill and Ditchling, and one each in Horam, Lewes, Newhaven and Peacehaven, Cliff reports. In January, a new one is due to start in Hastings.
On the first weekend in December, six of the groups will come together for the Christmas concert. This will be held at Christ Church in Horam, with the participation of the groups from Bay House and Southlands in Bexhill, Lewes and Heathfield, the latter in conjunction with a group from Brede. Three community choirs, Silver Tones, Oresome Sounds and Village Voices, will also take part.
“Our aim at all our sessions is to bring happiness to all our clients through the power of music and song,” says Suzanne Cheal, who acts as tutor to most of the groups. “To ignite their memory and show everyone that they are alive inside!
“It is amazing to see the change that takes place in each and every one of our clients as the session progresses. To start with they are generally quiet, introspective and staring blankly ahead, but as soon as the music starts, a foot will tap, a hand will clap, a sweet voice will be heard. Before long we have dancing, laughter and a collective feeling of positivity, optimism and contentment.”
A lot of credit for the success of the groups must go to Suzanne’s inspirational tutoring, Cliff says. A professional actor and singer whose CV includes appearances in Oliver! and more recently, Brief Encounters, Suzanne brings the joy of theatre to the singing sessions, and the elderly participants respond to her. For the Bexhill groups Ethna, another performer with experience in dementia care, acts as tutor.
Presumably it is the social interaction which is the magic key. Residents of care homes often suffer from a lack of stimulation, but once given an opportunity to express themselves, they are not slow to respond. “We aim to give them something to take them back to where they were,” Cliff says.
And when joint singing sessions are occasionally arranged between two of the groups, the participants clearly enjoy the social occasion.
One of the first lessons learnt was that the participants were not keen on childhood tunes such as Three Blind Mice and Old MacDonald Had A Farm, as recommended in the Alzheimer’s Society’s courses for would-be singing group organisers. “What they want is show songs!” says Cliff. “Like Oh What A Beautiful Morning!, Consider Yourself and Singing In The Rain.”
This year Dementia Support East Sussex has been funded by a modest grant from the Community Foundation of Surrey. Although the work is run on a shoestring, future funding needs to be found, and Cliff is preparing to seek support from sources such as the Big Lottery.
Seeing the obvious pleasure which the singing groups bring their participants, hopefully potential funders will have no difficulty in recognising the obvious value of the work.
Dementia Support East Sussex Christmas Concert Christ Church, Horebeech Lane, Horam, Heathfield TN21 0DT. 5pm, Saturday 3 December. All welcome.
More information about the singing groups and sessions can be found on the DSES website. Donations are welcome – they can be made by cheque payable to the Hastings and Rother Credit Union at 49 Cambridge Gardens, Hastings TN34 1EN. Please write ‘Dementia Support East Sussex’ on the back.
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