New choir strikes a chord for people with dementia

Researchers studying the effects of choir on people with Alzheimer’s

A new Saanich-based choir is looking to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s disease by pairing people afflicted by the disease with high school students.

About 50 people gathered on Wednesday to sing at Voices in Motion’s first session in the multipurpose room of Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in Saanich. The University of Victoria research-based initiative joins high school students in a choir with locals in the early or intermediate stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and their caregivers, to study effect of singing and socialization on those with dementia.

The belief is choirs may reduce health care costs and improve quality of life for people with dementia and their caregivers as singing is shown to improve mood, increase energy, reduce stress and support self-esteem. The project will measure the effects of participating in the choir and also relies on a 15-minute social meeting between members after each session.

The plan is to have 60 people in the choir, 20 high school students, 20 people with Alzheimer’s and their 20 respective caregivers. The choir held its first session Jan. 31, and interest is high with 20 keen students from St. Andrew’s Regional School. There are currently 14 dyads (groups of two) with room for four or five more, made up of a caregiver and a person with Alzheimer’s, said Debra Sheets, a UVic associate professor in the School of Nursing and the project’s principal investigator.

“Even when you have Alzheimer’s disease, you need ways to participate in our community and so often caregivers, too, can become socially isolated,” she said.

Led by professional musical director Erica Phare-Bergh, the choir will practice over a 14-week period and culminates with a spring performance. One of the goals is to make the project’s findings available so other organizations can follow suit.

Sheet’s own father suffered dementia and was prone to social isolation.

“What [participants] need to understand is they are part of a research study, this is a most rigorous study looking at the effects of choir participation on people with Alzheimer’s’s disease and their caregivers that’s been done to date,” Sheets said. “Even with Alzheimer’s you may not remember what it was that made you feel happy but that mood persists so the hope is we’re tapping into those parts of the brain, the song and music, that still seem to be working quite well.”

Applicants undergo a 90 to 120-minute intake and are expected to complete five neuropsychological assessments this spring and a minimum of six more next year.

No applicant will be turned away as long as the program is beneficial to them and they aren’t disruptive, Sheets said.

The program is officially known as Voices in Motion: An Intergenerational Community Choir for Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease and their Caregivers. The research team includes Stuart MacDonald from UVic’s Department of Psychology, Andre Smith from the Department of Sociology and Mary Kennedy of the School of Music.

Interested parties can contact Sheets at 250-721-8595 or dsheets@uvic.ca.

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