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Dementia and learning

Isabelle Adams introduces Wigmore Hall's Singing With Friends choir, demonstrating how people living with dementia can retain a capacity to learn.
For the past 10 years in particular, I’ve led a number of creative music projects for Wigmore Hall, working throughout the age spectrum. And most recently, I’ve become the musical director of Wigmore Hall’s ‘Singing with Friends’ dementia-friendly community choir. Initially, we didn’t really set too many goals. We wanted to keep it quite open and see what would happen. From a personal point of view, I was always interested in challenging some of the preconceived notions of what a choir with people with dementia could achieve musically. And I didn’t want to stick to familiar repertoire or songs we might assume people of that generation might enjoy. From my experience with working with this group, our participants are able to learn new material.
And so I bring new material. I bring different genres and teach them parts in harmony. I feel we’re able to do that within Singing with Friends, because it’s a very well-supported group. I work with a pianist; Wigmore Hall’s trainee animateur also works alongside who, for this year, is an oboist. So he often supports us in sessions. And obviously, we’re working as a community choir with family members and carers alongside people with dementia. So I feel it’s OK to challenge people if we can hear that the result is good.
If we’re making a good sound, and if we get that sense of positive feedback for ourselves, then we know that we can work through those challenges, and that we know that it’s going to be a bit tricky for a bit, but then we can hear the reward of it. Compared to other community choirs, I’m very careful in how I structure the sessions. So we have quite a fixed structure to the session. It’s more rigid than I would use with a different community choir. But within that structure, then there’s the flexibility to be responding to people in the moment.
And the point of that structure is to provide the cues to the people in the group as to what we’re doing, what the session is, and to provide familiarity. I think when we’re in the moment and engaged in an activity, we can become so absorbed in that that we have a loss of self-awareness and the other things that can be a challenge, and particularly for people with dementia. Am I remembering this right? Have I said it right? Those fears can disappear. We’re in flow. We’re doing this thing. And we’re totally absorbed by it. And I think that’s very powerful. And that allows a lot of freedom.

Isabelle Adams introduces the Singing With Friends choir.

The video demonstrates not only how the group provides a regular opportunity for people living with dementia and their friends and family to jointly engage in in-the-moment experiences, but also how people living with dementia can retain a capacity to learn.

The choir challenges the often preconceived ideas about what people living with dementia are either able or unable to achieve.

As music leader in the group, Issy explains the factors which she feels are critical in helping the choir go from strength to strength, and how the organisation of the Singing With Friends choir differs from other choirs which do not openly invite people living with dementia.

How important do you think it is for somebody living with a dementia to be given the opportunity to continue to learn and acquire new skills? Share your thoughts in the comments.

CREDITS We would like to thank James Berry/ Wigmore Hall for providing the supplementary images for this video.
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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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