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Choirs for dementia

Music to feel part of the world again

It's been nearly two years since it all started... since the music, the chords and the intonation, will come into our lives. In that month of February 2019 a project began that was different from all those we had done before. Not because we were more enthusiastic and wanted to get it off the ground than others, but because it was with music, and that changed everything.

My name is Jesús, I am an Occupational Therapist at AFAGA Alzheimer's in Vigo, and in this post I would like to introduce you to a project that is very special to us.

Confucius said that "music produces a kind of pleasure without which human nature cannot live", which perfectly describes that intimate union between music and human beings, from its origins to the present day. From this link arises the idea of which I am going to speak to you. A project of emotion on the surface, formed by a group of people with many things in common, especially their love of music and a personal experience linked to dementia.  An initiative that, as we shall see, improves the well-being of people living with this syndrome, and breaks down stereotypes and taboos that tend to characterise the narrative associated with dementia. 

Our choir is called "Sonidos de la memoria". We decided to name it this way to reflect the idea that musical memory remains in our inner being, and that it arises and comes to light just by hearing a melody or song.... Music as a companion on our life path and a meeting point for many memories and personal experiences of our childhood and youth. This musical memory is like a key to our particular memory chest, where our experiences are still there ready to be relived even when the person has a neurodegenerative disease...

Fotografía de un ensayo del coro Sonidos de la MemoriaRehearsal of the "Sonidos para la Memoria" choirProfessionals and families were surprised to see the effects of music on these people.

“Every rehearsal, every simple song brings joy back to my mother and she enjoys it as she did before”, Ana, Laura's daughter, recently confessed to me.

I also remember Carmen's comment when she saw her mother: "Emotions come to the surface where there were none...it's incredible”, or Concha who could not believe how her relative:

“She knows the lyrics to complete songs and sings them around the house”.”.

Some of them have even told me that their father used to get up every day asking if it was time to go and sing that day...

Sonidos de la memoria is the result of the collaboration of two entities, on the one hand, AFAGA (Association of relatives of Alzheimer's and other dementia patients in Galicia) and on the other hand, the Casablanca Choral Foundation, the oldest and most renowned choral society in the city of Vigo, which has won many prizes and distinctions during its more than 60 years of existence.

At the beginning of the project we started the rehearsals of the choir under the direction of Óscar Villar, accompanied by members of the "Gepetto" choir, one of the choirs of the Casablanca Choral Foundation, which is made up of people over 65 years old with no previous cognitive pathology. Our choir was born out of that wonderful meeting between members of different Casablanca choirs and the users and relatives of AFAGA. A union of diverse voices that favours the social inclusion of people with dementia, helping to dismantle stereotypes that tend to stigmatise them, and playing a very beneficial role in the self-esteem of all participants, especially those who live with this condition of dementia.

An idea with international implantation

Similar initiatives have emerged in recent years in different parts of the world. A recent article in The Washington Post talks about more than 67 choirs created in the USA alone. Closer to us is an experience directed by Vicky McClure. This British actress, winner of a BAFTA award, has set up a programme on the BBC where you can see the day-to-day life of a choir with people with dementia, from their daily rehearsals and problems, to their public performance.

 

This proposal helps to give visibility to this group and dismantle a social image that tends to represent them as absent, dull, sad beings and forgets the desire of these people to continue participating, enjoying activities that are meaningful and gratifying for them, feeling that they are important. Lives on the move, lives with meaning.

Despite the Covid, we continue...

As I write these lines, the COVID-19 pandemic has already changed our world and life completely, postponing many projects, including our choir. However, while we await a return to our rehearsals, the link with music and the choir remains intact, with joint activities such as the benefit concert offered by the Casablanca Choir to all members during the week of World Alzheimer's Day and in addition, the break has allowed us to take time to pass on the fruit of this experience through initiatives such as the Dementia in Cultural Mediation (DCUM) project, a European programme that collects artistic and cultural practices that favour the social inclusion of people with dementia in their immediate environment, and in which we are pleased to participate. 

As the time comes to meet again, we are left with that phrase from the British writer and philosopher, Aldous Huxley, which says: “After silence, what comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music”.

How important it is to open up channels of expression to emotions, something that will always remain with people with dementia.

Author

Therapeutic Coordinator and Occupational Gerontologist Therapist at AFAGA

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