Concert orchestra is in tune with Alzheimer’s

A club which helps dementia sufferers recall old memories is being tuned to perfection with the help of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

For three dates only, four instrumentalists will be providing musical accompaniment to the workshops which not only provide stimulating experiences for Alzheimer’s patients, but also offer much-needed support and social opportunities for them and their carers.

Singing For The Brain, an initiative from the Alzheimer’s Society, has been running classes in Hemel Hempstead for around two years. There are more than 11,000 people in Hertfordshire living with dementia today and across the UK the figure tops 820,000.

The foundation for the innovative project lies in groundbreaking research into the effects of music on the brain.

Kerry Brabant, Hemel Hempstead’s Singing For The Brain leader, said: “The research showed that we can remember music in many different parts of our brain, which is why somehow we can still connect it to memory even when other parts of the brain become damaged.

“Singing For The Brain helps people with dementia improve their ability to communicate, but it is also something they can share with their families to overcome the feeling of isolation that comes with being a sufferer or a carer.”

The classes, held in the Crawley Drive community centre in Grovehill, involve singing old songs which were popular in the earlier years of the sufferers’ lives.

For many families and carers, seeing their loved one engage with the music is like seeing them return to their old selves.

Jill Hardy of Bovingdon takes her dad Ted to the sessions. She said: “The stage of dementia he is at now means that he can no longer entertain himself. Previously he could always read a book or go into the garden for a wander but now he needs that entertainment given to him.

“If he hears music on the radio or TV, it seems to stimulate him. He struggles with finding words but here they sing all the songs of old which he knows so well. That is a part of his memory that’s not gone. This is really for him, but I get a huge benefit from it, too.”

David Gurd’s wife Pauline has early onset dementia, and although she was diagnosed aged just 54 she had been having problems even earlier in life. Now 58, she lives with David in Grovehill and has just started coming to Kerry’s sessions.

David said: “Pauline likes to people-watch, and I have been trying to find things to get her to interact some more. So far it has helped her but I am hoping, as she has dementia so young, that I can help introduce songs from the 1960s and 70s to the sessions as well.

“Music definitely helps. It brings a smile to Pauline’s face and she does relate to the songs, even though some of it is a bit before her time. You can just see the picture on her face, it really brightens her up.”

The introduction of the BBC Concert Orchestra to the usually a cappella sessions is a special treat for the members, of which there are more than 30.

It helps enrich the sessions by allowing them to connect music with memories quicker, although Kerry says the unaccompanied classes are also important for challenging the sufferers.

The orchestra’s planning and learning assistant Roz Surtees said: “This is one of our learning initiatives. We wanted to engage with the elderly community as we thought they could benefit from it.

“Singing For The Brain just felt like a good idea to get involved with, and so far they seem to enjoy hearing musicians play along to their songs, purely because it is something different for them.”

Carers Jill and David are hopeful that the high-profile, nationwide project can help to spread awareness of Singing For The Brain, and Alzheimer’s in general.

David said: “Having the concert orchestra here is pretty exciting, because this disease needs to be brought to the forefront of public awareness.

“Dementia is not like breaking a leg, it creeps up on you. For people like Pauline, it can happen so early and it is so hard to put a finger on exactly when it takes hold.”

The first orchestral workshop took place earlier this month and two more are planned on April 2 and April 9. For more information about the free sessions call Kerry on 07889603944 or email kerry.brabant@alzheimers.org.uk.