One resident no longer speaks, but he still sings. Another’s memory loss and condition mean that he can no longer read. But he has been singing since he was a child and knows how to harmonise and sustain a note; he is one of the finest singers in the choir.
Both men are members of the Emmy Monash Community Choir, based at a care home for the elderly in Melbourne. Pamela Bruder, who started the choir and conducts it, is convinced that ‘singing can achieve quite miraculous things. Husbands and wives come in to visit their spouses and sing in the choir and it creates a sense of joy. There aren’t many other instances where you feel a sense of joy coming into a high-care unit.’
The Emmy Monash aged care home (named after its founder, a community activist) is designed to allow people to ‘age in place’ as the Australians say: no matter what happens, you can stay. It offers its 90 residents (most of whom arrived in Australia after the war as concentration camp survivors from Eastern Europe) independent living apartments, a low-care area, high-care and a dementia wing. The choir draws members from all the areas of the home, as well as from local school students, friends and relatives.
There is increasing interest in the value of music therapy to people with dementia and Pamela Bruder, who is herself working on an anthropology PhD on the choir, is convinced of it. ‘Singing seems to be the last thing to go,’ she says. ‘The transformative power of music is physiological. A group of people in tune with music is in tune with each other. There are members of the choir who may not be able to put sentences together any more and who certainly wouldn’t initiate a conversation, but they can sing. And if they can still read, they can learn new songs, including in other languages. We sing in six languages.’
Pamela has been running the choir for a couple of years, having been brought in to Emmy Monash, rejoicing in the title of Life Enrichment Coordinator, to find ways to make living there a more nourishing and culturally rewarding experience while building links to the wider community. From the start, she was determined the choir would include the residents of the dementia wing and high-care area. ‘A lot of the low-care residents don’t want to confront high care, even though there may be people there who were their friends. They won’t go upstairs. So we bring people in wheelchairs down to the low care area, plus quite a few in what we call Princess Chairs – fully reclining bed-chairs. Some people, especially with dementia, need encouragement to come, and I make written invitations for them, which I deliver in the mornings. They like to be invited.’
About 30 people attend the choir each week, of whom 15 will be from the high care or dementia wings. They rehearse 10 to 15 songs and work towards concerts and festivals to which they invite friends and relatives, when the size of the choir doubles. In between the weekly sessions with a pianist, Pamela works on a one-to-one basis with individuals, accompanying on the guitar.
Students from local schools also come in on a regular basis. ‘The choir is an icebreaker. Often kids will come in to a high care facility and they don’t know where to look: there’s someone with a paralysed limb, or repeating the same thing over and over. But singing is a neutraliser. You can’t tell what people are capable of by looking at them. We sit the students two between residents, and we often run out of songbooks, so people have to share. You can find a person from the high care area who’s had a stroke but is cognitively unimpaired helping someone from the low care area. It’s hugely important never to make assumptions about what people are capable of because they carry a label – “high care” or “short-term memory loss.”’
I heard about Pamela Bruder from Kevin Johnson of Cisco, who has become interested in how technology might extend the capacity and reach of the choir. Together, they have hatched a plan for a TelePresence singalong with a group of older people from Almere in the Netherlands, where Cisco is pioneering the use of video technology to allow older people to participate in a wide range of activities designed to promote wellbeing. They haven’t confirmed the date yet, but the cross-continent choir will sing together some time in October.
‘Entry to the Emmy Monash choir is not based on how well you sing,’ Pamela says; ‘it’s a question of whether you can breathe. But we achieve a really good sound quality, because people are so enthusiastic.’