There can be no doubting the value of music in the lives of those with dementia when one sees Alchemy Chorus in action. This dementia inclusive choir at the Hughes Community Centre, Canberra, offers many insights into how singing can offer profound benefits to those with this affliction, and it serves as an inspiration for all those who otherwise know or have been touched by it.
Started in 2016 by Brian Triglone OAM, Alchemy Chorus meets weekly for two hours and has around 80 participants who span three groups. In the first place are people at Hughes who have dementia, but supporting them are their carers and outside singing volunteers who have Working with Vulnerable People certificates to come in and help. All combine in two and three part singing, and it is clear to anyone looking on that their experience of uniting in voice fosters much joy, community feeling and sense of wellbeing. Witness them here: their smiling faces and engagement are great to see.
Triglone, a well-known figure in community choir singing in Canberra, was inspired to begin Alchemy Chorus in 2016 after learning about a similar choir called Giving Voice in Minnesota, USA, that helps people with Alzheimer’s. The ACT branch of Dementia Australia was instrumental in helping Triglone set up his choir, and he explains that he chose the name ‘Alchemy’ because it “reflects the blending of different elements to produce something better than it parts”.
A key aspect from the beginning has been involving care partners and outside voluntary singers. “This composition is vital to our model because we want to develop an environment which allows couples otherwise often socially isolated, to join in a normal enjoyable activity together and importantly to interact with people who face similar challenges,” says Triglone. “The value of the Chorus to our carers cannot be overestimated.”
Another important thing is giving concerts – performances in public are a prominent part of what they do. “We always aim to be judged on our performance rather than our composition,” he says. “In our last three concerts, we have received standing ovations. All this is aimed at reminding people that those with dementia can still contribute and enjoy the moment even if it’s forgotten soon afterwards.”
The science about how singing and other forms of musical involvement may be of benefit to dementia suffers is still a long way from being fully known. However, Alzheimer’s Australia Dementia Research Foundation has posted a number of research findings that show that singing, dancing and other social activities can bring about increased social engagement, and that listening to music can awaken parts of the brain not affected by dementia and bring about moments of reconnection with loved ones.
For his part, Triglione believes the case is persuasive. “There is strong evidence that musical memory is one of the last abilities lost to dementia because it appears to be spread across the brain rather being than concentrated in one area,” he says. While he stresses that Alchemy is not about providing formal therapy, he nevertheless cites numerous instances in which carers have commented to him that singing in the Chorus has brought positives change.
“Because we don’t pretend to be offering formal music therapy and have no way of formally quantifying the value of the Chorus, I can only rely on anecdotes from carers,” he says. “For example, one lady who had lost the ability to feed herself using a knife and fork was able to do so at lunch after choir. Another said that she knew she’d just had a really enjoyable time (at choir practice) but she couldn’t remember where.”
“There have been several occasions when I’ve stood near someone with quite advanced dementia who is seemingly not contributing very much, only to hear them singing with quite a nice voice. So I’ve asked them to do a solo and it’s just beautiful. But generally there is a lifting of mood and awareness during choir. One carer reported that when they started in the Chorus it was the first time she’d seen her husband smile for as long as she could remember.”
This is the most satisfying musical experience he has been involved with, he says, and he is keen to spread the word and help seed similar choirs around Australia. “We can provide assistance with that, says Triglone. “It’s not a huge commitment but it’s incredibly satisfying.”
Anyone interested can visit the choir’s website and get directly in touch with him.
Alchemy Chorus’s next concert marks the beginning of World Alzheimer’s Month and is on 31 August at the Uniting Church in Parkinson Street, Weston ACT. “We’ll be singing a recently commissioned song called ‘I am Here’, voicing the plea of those families affected by dementia not to be ignored,” Triglone adds. All proceeds will be donated to Dementia Australia. Again see the above link for details.