Rita Goodman sings along with the Voices in Motion choir led by Erica Phare-Bergh, choir conductor, during a rehearsal at St. Joseph the Worker. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Saanich teens join adults with dementia in new choir

Intergenerational choir fights stigma and social isolation

After three months of weekly rehearsals the Voices in Motion choir is ready for its first performance.

The inter-generational choir is a joint project by led by UVic researchers and focuses around people living with dementia, their family caregivers, and high school students from St. Andrew’s Regional school.

The group is holding its first public concert at St. Aidan’s Church on Wednesday (May 2).

There are many goals for the choir, which is ending its 14-week pilot project and will continue as part of a larger two-year study that researchers how participating in a community choir fights stigma and fosters social engagement. Throughout the two years the researchers are interviewing the caregivers’ well-being, and the improved quality of life for persons with dementia.

“We’ve heard anecdotally that one of the participants is feeling less stigmatized,” said project lead Debra Sheets, a professor of nursing at UVic. “She’s able to talk more about having this condition, seen a bump in her cognitive function, it’s exciting, though it’s only anecdotal at this stage.”

“It’s very uplifting,” said Frank Peters, who’s lived in Fernwood for 44 years with wife Mary, who has early onset Alzheimer’s. “We like that fact that we’re singing with youth from the high school, it makes a world of difference for us.”

The research team will now aim to start a second choir for September and is opening it to adults with all types dementia, though most people with dementia are diagnosed Alzheimer’s.

“The brain can’t be repaired but there are always ways to optimize your function, and [what we’ve seen so far] seems very promising from my perspective,” said Stuart MacDonald, UVic professor of psychology.

Sheets said it’s the most robust study ever done on a choir for people with dementia.

“Isolation is now recognized as a serious threat to health, so much that in the U.K. there is now a Minister of Loneliness,” Sheets said. “We’re doing neuropsychological assessments, cognitive assessments, physiological assessments, studying social connections, network analysis, and looking at caregivers, students and participants.”

Sheets and MacDonald are part of the project with UVic research affiliates Andre Smith (sociology), Mary Kennedy (music) and Carl Asche (economics) at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

The high school students, who come from nearby St. Andrew’s Regional school, are also being surveyed about their attitudes and knowledge about dementia before and at the end of the project.

“I am very interested in the point of view that being in a choir and singing can benefit people with Alzheimer’s,” said Grade 12 student Jack De Kock. “And our singing has improved since we started practising together.”

The project is funded by the Alzheimer’s Society Research Program and Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation. Island Health is the project’s community collaborator.

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