Our Dementia Choir

Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure presents Our Dementia Choir on BBC1. Credit: BBC/Curve Media

At one point in BBC 1’s Our Dementia Choir, the wife of 67-year-old Chris, who is living with the condition, says to Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure, “What you’ve given Chris is unbelievable”.

And it is.  For Chris’s rare type of frontal temporal dementia affects his behaviour more than his memory, making him unpredictable, uninhibited and unable to express his emotions.   He and his wife both worked full time and then – “Wham bam!” as Jane puts it – because of Chris’s condition they are forced together 24:7.

“It’s like your dream come true,” Chris chips in.  Jane lets out an instinctive, contradictory expletive and in an instant we see behind the veil of normality to a world – Jane’s world – in which days run into nights because Chris doesn’t always sleep.  It’s life with dementia in all its more-than-difficult, sleep-deprived reality.

Yet – and here’s the magical, unbelievable bit – after several weeks in a choir consisting entirely of others who, like him, have dementia, Chris is able to express emotion; he cries as he sings the song they’re rehearsing.  When Jane asks why, Chris says it’s because the words mean so much to him.

I was lucky enough to have a sneak preview of the two-part documentary and it’s compelling viewing – poignant, yet uplifting too.  Testament to the fact that there is life after a dementia diagnosis.

If you’re not familiar with the Beatle’s ballad, In My Life, do look it up.  Its lyrics are all about not being here anymore, about forgetting things and people – about enduring love.  Jane reveals that she and Chris stood in the kitchen in floods of tears, saying how much they were going to miss each other.  It was a moment of sadness, but also of connection; proof, if any more were needed, of music’s extraordinary powers for those with dementia.

McClure puts it better than I could.

“In some ways it wasn’t all sad, it was a lovely feeling.  To be able to cry with your partner and have a moment when you’re both on exactly the same page and you can be there – that’s why we’re doing this”.

McClure has boundless empathy & is the perfect presenter for Our Dementia Choir. Credit: BBC/Curve Media

McClure, unlike her scarily emotionless onscreen persona DI Kate Fleming, has boundless empathy and turns out to be the perfect presenter for an informative, sensitive, honest – but above all profoundly moving – programme about a group of individuals living with dementia who come together to sing.    She saw how music helped her adored Nana Iris (or Nona as she calls her) by “changing her mood, calming her down and, for a while, bringing us back the old Nona”.

Of course McClure is saying – albeit with the full force of the BBC behind her – what so many of us in the dementia sector have been saying for years.  That music really does help.  And she doesn’t just say it, she teams up with scientists exploring pioneering techniques to reveal how music can restore a brain damaged by the condition.

Sebastian Crutch is professor of neuropsychology at the Dementia Research Centre, University College London.  He calls music the “special ingredient” for those with the condition – and, needless to say, he and his expert medical colleagues are delighted with the findings of their ground-breaking experiments involving the dementia choir.

To be honest, while scientific evidence is necessary and invaluable, the truth is there for all of us to see when we watch videos such as Alive Inside, showing how music radically improves the lives of people in even the most advanced stages of dementia.

I unwittingly tapped into this potent force when I switched on the radio so that my late mum (who lived with dementia for her last decade) could listen to the traditional Christmas Eve Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.  Mum had been sleeping in her nursing home bed for several weeks – then, as the chorister sang the opening bars of Once in Royal David’s City, she opened her eyes.  It was all she did, but it was enough.  A connection had been made; and this knowledge was of immense comfort to me when, the following day, mum died just moments before I arrived (I later wrote about it in The Telegraph.)

It’s one of the many reasons why I’m campaigning for the BBC to take up soprano Lesley Garrett’s brilliant idea for them to reintroduce their old radio programme, Singing Together, which I remember from my schooldays, this time for older people and those with dementia.  Given that, scandalously, just 5 percent of care homes have access to quality music therapy – the reintroduction of Singing Together would, at a stroke – or at the push of a radio button – provide thousands of people with life-enhancing benefits they can otherwise never enjoy.

Unlike me, or probably many of you reading this, the majority of those watching Our Dementia Choir will be unaware of music’s potent force.  This will change after they’ve witnessed its effects on Chris and Jane, or other choir members such as 91-year-old Eileen who has advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  After a few minutes singing She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain with music therapist Chris Wilson, Eileen becomes animated and talks and moves about far more.  She comes alive – there’s no better way to put it.

On the night of the performance in front of a 2,000 strong audience at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall there’s not a dry eye in the house.  Choking back emotion, McClure says she’s never felt a room filled with such love.  She closes the programme with a tribute to her Nona.

“This is her.  This is why I’m here – so she’s having a real legacy and I’m proud of her for that”.

I know just how Vicky feels.  It’s because of my proud, flame-haired mum that I’m sitting here now, tapping out my dementia blog, tears sliding down my cheeks.

Musical director Mark De-Lisser conducts Our Dementia Choir. Credit: BBC/Curve Media

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