Home | Practical Living | With one voice: the community choir giving a voice to those in aged care
The Altona Meadows choir. Photo: Graham Denholm

With one voice: the community choir giving a voice to those in aged care

I like to do it in the shower. Or while I’m driving the car. Even around the house while I’m doing chores or standing on a table in the pub.

These are a few places I like to sing.

Friends and family have always had a chuckle at my noisy-singing-ways. I do it without noticing most times, but belting out a tune or softly singing makes me feel good. It feels like a stress release.

And it turns out science backs this up.

Studies show that oxytocin, the pleasure and love chemical in the brain, is greatly increased after singing.

In fact, singing has been shown to increase blood flow, improve neural pathways, release endorphins and can increase learning and language skills.

Creativity Australia want to use singing, and all of these benefits, to build a “happier, healthier, more inclusive nation” through its With One Voice program.

This idea consists of what is a simple and somewhat lost concept. With One voice is a choir program.

Founded in 2008 by award-winning social entrepreneur and soprano Tania de Jong AM, more than 6,000 people have taken part in their choirs over the last decade.

Through the years, participants in the professionally conducted choirs have reported that they experience less stress and feel less depressed, and over 80 per cent of participants have reported making new friends or relationships with other choir members.

With One Voice has also taken these ideas to the aged care space. Its Altona Meadows choir in Melbourne has been involving aged care residents and bringing the community together for the past six years.

Ray McAlary and Denise Bedford can attest to the power of a community choir.

The couple met when Ray moved to Melbourne from Brisbane after the death of his wife. Ray joined the local Laverty choir after seeing an ad in the paper.

“I saw this advertisement in the paper one day with these three lovely ladies who happened to include Denise. And I thought I’ll give this a try, and … never looked back. We got on particularly well, but it took me four months to ask her out,” he tells me.

“He’s a bit slow but you know,” Denise says with the perfect timing of a singer.

Five-and-a-half years later and they are now married and dedicated members of the Altona Meadows choir.

“It’s not just about getting something [out of the choir]. It’s being able to give. You see I am 74 now and Ray’s 75. And it is just beautiful. We are at an age where we can appreciate other things in life other than ourselves,” Denise tell me.

“I can’t speak for the others, but I just love to help there. I love the people that are there,” she says.

“There’s 21 community members in the choir. There were 22 but one of them, Jack, has moved into the nursing home,” Ray says. “He’s about 86. And there are about 10 of us that meet up at the coffee shop. It’s the local Melbourne Central Shopping Centre after choir on Wednesdays. So, it sort of continues on. And we’re able to laugh, have a good chat. It’s really beautiful,” Denise continues.

The Altona Meadows choir is a great reflection of the community, the pair say, with the youngest members in their twenties all the way up to the residents of the Benetas home in their 80s and 90s.

“We do have a couple of twin girls who have joined. They would be in their early twenties. We have a beautiful woman called Annie. She’s blind. And one of the members who joined before her, Lynn, she’s taken her under her wing now. Annie’s about 60. And she’s got the most magnificent voice. And Lynn sort of leads her around everywhere. And it has just been a wonderful thing,” Denise beams.

“You know people say they’ve got nothing to do. Well, go join a choir or go volunteer at a nursing home or somewhere. And you see life in a different way.”

And volunteer is what these choir members do at Benetas. Singing side by side, forming bonds through song, the members take on other roles in the residents’ lives.

Ray and Denise tell me about an Italian member of the choir who takes the Italian papers to the home in his own time and reads to some Italian residents he’s befriended.

“Helping, just talking to people. Holding their hands, telling them they are beautiful. Just the interaction with them. It is just beautiful and plus we have a wonderful conductor, Kym. He’s lovely,” Denise says.

Kym is Kym Dillon, a professional conductor and musician in his own right. A pianist first and foremost, Kym studied to be a composer at Victorian College of the Arts (now an Open Uni) and got the composing gig with Creativity Australia – his first – aged 21.

“I just learned on the job as it was and gaining confidence over the years, but I really did love it. And I had grown a set of skills that mean I can do it quite naturally now. It’s one of those sink or swim type things and the Altona choir was added to my roster, probably three years after that.”

The Altona choir is about breaking down barriers between the community and those in aged care, Kym tells me.

“What makes the magic of this choir work is that the singing is the heart of it, but then out of that flows these relationships we forge with the residents. And that spills over into the afternoon tea we have straight after choir, where all the visitors will sit down and have a cup of tea with the residents,” he says.

“It really is about building this community and building those relationships but starting up with the idea of community singing. It all flows out from that because when you sing music with people it tends to link people together, even people from very different stages in life, or walks of life. It’s quite remarkable what happens there.”

Kym tells me how much he enjoys the back and forth with residents and, surprisingly, how much he gets from these amateurs compared with some of the professionals he works with.

“With some professional choirs, you can spend a long time getting all the harmonies right and all the finer details, and then it’s hard to actually get them to really mean it, when you sing those words, to sound like you actually believe these words and you’re singing from your heart. But this choir, it’s never a problem. Straight away, they always sing from their heart, there’s always such a spirit to it where it’s like all those words have life,” he says like a proud father.

Creativity Australia programs manager Nathan Lange lists off the benefits aged care residents, especially those with dementia, gain form singing in a group, and he credits Benetas St George’s with implementing the choir. When I ask why this isn’t done everywhere, he is honest in his response.

“The blunt truth is that cost is often the barrier,” he says.

“We pay Kim exactly what he’s worth. So, there are base costs to running a choir over 45 weeks of a year. It’s actually more than $10,000 a year to run the choir.”

“The new aged care standards have just come out, and we’re kind of encouraging a lot of facilities with the capacity to revisit how they’re going to meet all those targets, and running a choir is really … there’s lots of boxes you tick really easily.”

Science tells us that singing in a group has more benefits than singing alone.

Research from the University of Oxford has found that compared with individuals participating in craft or creative writing classes, singers experience a greater increase in self-reported closeness to their group while group singing bonded groups together more quickly than for other activities.

Amazingly, choral singers have also been found to sync heartbeats.

Carol Digna, community coordinator of residential care at Benetas St George’s says the choir is the best activity they have offered, and the after-effects for residents are priceless.

“It’s absolutely fantastic,” she says.

“We have residents who are members of the choir and participate in the singing part of it. But it also becomes a show for other residents who choose not be in the choir but like to come and listen.”

Digna says morale is boosted at the home after the choir comes around, and the more direct participation the better the outcomes. Digna also loves that community choir members dedicate their time to the residents.

“I cannot say enough about our choir. It’s so well attended overtly and passively.

“I’ve got one resident who doesn’t want to come out of her room for anything else but the choir, and she cracks it if we don’t get her there!” she laughs.

Tania de Jong spoke at a TEDx event about the benefits of singing. She told the crowd that Creativity Australia deliberately brings together the most diverse people possible to experience the benefits music can give.

“CEOs, doctors, lawyers, grandmothers with students, people with depression, disabilities, migrants and job seekers. Aged from nine to 90 of all faiths and all backgrounds,” she said.

“Most of the people come along saying they can’t sing. We help them find not only their voice and their singing voice, but their voice in life: their meaning and their purpose.”

More information on Creativity Australia‘s choir programs can be found at creativityaustralia.org.au/choirs/join-a-choir/.

Do you have an idea for a story?
Email [email protected]

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the top stories in our weekly newsletter Sign up now

One comment

  1. Hi. I have a husband who has mild vascular dementia and am wondering where and when you meet to practice. He is from Slovakia used to belong to a choir there and he particularly likes the traditional hymns. He speaks good English and has been in Australia since 1979.