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Intergenerational choir helps UVic researchers study dementia

Voices in Motion, a new choir formed as a research project at the University of Victoria, is already showing that living with dementia does not mean a life without song.
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Gracia Seal (centre) and St. Andrew's Regional High School students Jessica Coady (left), Claire O'Neill and Mari Chambers on percussion, practice with the Voices in Motion intergenerational choir project led by UVic researchers.

Voices in Motion, a new choir formed as a research project at the University of Victoria, is already showing that living with dementia does not mean a life without song.

Formed as part of a scientific and medical investigation and led by researchers at UVic, the 60-member choir bills itself as multi-generational. Voices in Motion boasts as members 20 people living with dementia, 20 of their care-givers and 20 teens from St. Andrew’s Regional High School.

The choir performs Wednesday at St. Aidan’s United Church, 3703 St. Aidan’s St., at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10, but phoning ahead is advised. Participants stress Voices in Motion is a professionally directed choir.

“We hope when people come, they realize you can’t tell when someone singing on stage has dementia and who doesn’t,” said lead researcher Debra Sheets, a UVic nursing professor and lead researcher behind Voices in Motion.

“They are all equal up there, and they all help create this beautiful sound,” said Sheets, who has a longstanding interest in care of the elderly, particularly those living with dementia.

Sheets said causes of dementia are many. Alzheimer’s is progressive and perhaps the most notorious. But vascular conditions can also lead to dementia, as can strokes and Parkinson’s disease.

She said it’s hoped the 14-week Voices in Motion study will reveal measurable results indicating improvements in the people living with dementia. Some results will be ready this summer, and it’s hoped two more choirs can be formed this fall and the results published after the fall of 2019.

A variety of tests are being administered. Neuro-psychological and cognitive abilities are recorded. Physical abilities are measured by looking at walking gait, testing grip strength and testing respiratory function.

But Sheets said anecdotal observations are already showing positive shifts.

“We can see those who initially were not singing are now actively participating,” she said. “Clearly, it is having a profound impact on the brain, and is proving a joyful experience for them.”

UVic psychology professor Stuart MacDonald said memory is often classified in several forms.

MacDonald said declarative memory relates to our abilities to form new memories, such as how to perform a new task or recalling what happened this morning. Other forms of memory include emotional memory: How did something make you feel? Procedural memory relates to performing tasks almost without thought, as in riding a bicycle.

“But the really neat thing about music is it’s almost kind of a memory super-stimulus,” he said.

One result is the music we have listened to while young is associated with a portion of the brain that remains relatively untouched by Alzheimer’s disease.

So MacDonald said people living with dementia can often be reached with the music of the Beatles, Elvis or popular songs from the Second World War, even if they can’t recall a song they only just heard.

“The most recently formed memories are the first ones to disappear, but you can almost always reach someone with Alzheimer’s, as long as you go back far enough,” he said.

Philip O’Reilly, director of St. Andrew’s High School Choir, said this ability for older musical memories to remain accessible is providing enriching moments for the teens in Voices in Motion.

“We are doing a Second World War medley, and we have a couple of survivors of the Blitz in London,” said O’Reilly. “They can remember songs they sang in a bomb shelter.”

“This is really providing some cross-generational learning experience for our students,” he said.

He also said it’s a wonderful experience to watch people who live with dementia become energized and more alive as they start singing old songs. “They may not be able to remember what they have to do that afternoon, but they can remember a song they learned 60 years ago,” said O’Reilly.

“It’s a real testament to the power that music has to imprint on the brain,” he said.