Every three seconds, somewhere in the world, someone is diagnosed with dementia.
In fact, according to a 2015 World Alzheimer Report by Kings College London, an estimated 46.8 million people worldwide, around a quarter in Europe, are already living with dementia and the numbers are set to rise.
Depressing statistics, but in one small corner of the globe, Dumbarton, there is music and laughter as musician Bryan Marshall conducts the Every Voice community choir – a dementia friendly community singing group for sufferers and carers.
The music brings the group alive – unlocking a part of their minds through song.
Bryan, who runs the group in association with Alzheimer Scotland, said: “It’s amazing the benefits it seems to give.
“We’ve got quite a few couples who come, husbands and wives. The very first week we came together a few of them were coming up to me saying that they’ve seen a difference in their partner.
“Nobody knows quite why this is, but we can all relate to having emotional connections to certain songs in our lives, smiling
and enjoying it, which is rare you know.”
Choir leader Bryan Marshall
Bryan is a professional musician and choir master based in Glasgow, musical director of Westerton Male Voice Choir and founder of the Sing Aloud singing for pleasure groups, so he has seen from experience the positive influence that singing has on people’s lives and well- being.
He said: “It’s all about coming together and doing something that everybody can naturally do which is, of course, sing. You don’t really need anything, just a space and somebody like me in front of them to try and put them together.”
Singing, the group have found, seems to unlock something in the memory banks that nothing else can, especially for those with dementia.
Kathleen Cannon works as a part-time Activities Co-ordinators at Edinbarnet Nursing Home, Clydebank, bringing six of their residents to the choir every fortnight.
She said: “Some of the people in the home could sleep all day, but the minute they hear the sound of music, they sing along. We’re not sure why, but for some reason, music brings them alive.”
The choir was started just over a year ago by Fiona Kane, Dementia Adviser for Alzheimer Scotland with funding from Life Changes Trust. Her role is to provide information, advice and education. For the first time, she had arranged for children from Knoxland and St Michael’s, both Dumbarton primary schools, to join in the singing.
Fiona said: “Local schools become ‘dementia friends’ and the children learn about dementia to raise their awareness.
“Bryan is very charismatic, very funny and very energetic and that all rubs off onto other people.”
The fun and laughter begin when Bryan starts with some warm up exercises to get everyone’s vocal chords and facial muscles ready for singing. After some shoulder rolling and head movements to relax everyone’s muscles and get their blood pumping, he demonstrates repeating the word “hot”, emphasising the breathy “huh” sound of the “H” followed by a strong letter “T” sound, while flapping his hand in front of his face, pretending how hot he is. This causes a few giggles. Then the choir takes a collective deep breath and repeats ‘hot, hot, hot, hot, hot’ starting slowly and quietly then rising rapidly in volume to a final loud crescendo which raises their mood as they raise their voices with simple sounds to get them primed for singing. Bryan asks everyone to give their neighbour a high five which sets the seal on the cheerful mood for the rest of the afternoon. The palpable energy levels of the choir now match the bright, light, airy interior of the their venue that is St Augustine’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Dumbarton’s High Street.
Today the choir is learning the three part harmony for “Call Me” the two word outro, or ending, of the song “Lean on Me”, written and recorded by African-American singer songwriter Bill Withers, a song frequently played at charity fundraising events such as for the 2010 Haiti earthquake relief. Singers can choose to sing low, middle or high to suit their particular voice. Bryan gently instructs them in blending their voices into a pleasing harmony that brings smiles to everyone’s faces as they each realise their joint achievement singing in harmony as a choir.
The opening line is appropriate for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and their carers: “Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow”, ending on a positive note with “you just call on me brother, when you need a hand, we all need somebody to lean on.”
“Lean on Me” was followed by “When You Say Nothing at All”, a song which featured in the film Notting Hill and is Ronan Keating’s 1999 hit single after leaving the boy band Boyzone.
Before the start of each song, Bryan invites the singers to turn to their neighbour on either side and say “Enjoy” or “Good Luck” and at the end they give each other a brief pat on the back or another
high five. These touch gestures keep the feel good atmosphere skipping along and the energy levels high for everyone taking part.
By the time the choir starts singing the familiar Skye Boat song, all inhibitions are forgotten as everyone joins in the actions of rowing a boat and just having fun before pausing for a well-earned tea break.
Betty McQueen and Liz Grant are two of the volunteers who serve tea, coffee and biscuits during the break.
Betty said: ‘The choir started a year ago in September. There were only about 20 at first, then 30 and 40 and now we have over 70 who come regularly. Everyone attending enjoys the singing.”
Harry Martin also helps out. He brings his wife who has dementia and was keeping an eye on his four month old grand-daughter as she slept soundly in her pram during the singing, while his daughter, the baby’s mother, sang in the choir alongside her own mother, Harry’s wife, so a real family affair.
Volunteer Liz Grant said: “We also have tea dances four times a year with a live band. They love dancing too, even some in wheelchairs who get a birl.”
Every Voice choir is funded by the Life Changes Trust, an independent Scottish charity, established in April 2013 with a £50 million endowment from the Big Lottery Fund, based in Glasgow. The choir’s funding finishes at the end of March next year.
Lesley Cumming is Community Activities Organiser for the local area.
She said: “We are looking at all types of ways to keep the choir going. Look at how everyone gets so much enjoyment out of this. You can see it, everyone absolutely loves it, the way Bryan leads it, the songs, I can’t see it would stop at all.”
Alzheimer Scotland funds local Dementia Advisors, like Fiona Kane, who support people with dementia, their partners, families and carers. They believe that no-one should go through dementia on their own.
The final verse of “Lean on Me” could have been written as an anthem for Alzheimer Scotland:
“If there is a load you have to bear, that you can’t carry, I’m right up the road, I’ll share your load, If you just call me.Call Freephone: 0808 808 300 24/7 dementia helpline web: www.alzscot.org