British Columbia

Singing for social connection and for science

A University of Victoria research project is creating a choir for people with Alzheimer's disease, their caregivers and local high school students to formally study the benefits of music on dementia.

UVic researchers to study effects of intergenerational choir on well-being of Alzheimer's patients

Researchers at the University of Victoria are starting a multigenerational choir for people with Alzheimer's disease similar to an Ontario choir initiated by the Alzheimer Society London and Middlesex for high school students and patients, pictured. (Bruce Wray, Alzheimer Society London and Middlesex)

Before her Alzheimer's diagnosis, Noel Schacter's wife found joy in singing with a local Bach choir. 

But as the disease progressed, participation in regular choirs became too difficult, Schacter said.

So when he saw a notice about a new intergenerational choir for people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers, he quickly sent an application to its creator at the University of Victoria.

"I immediately jumped on it," Schacter said. 

"Every little bit helps. It helps to improve the quality of your life, and probably as much mine as hers."

Helping to reduce the isolation of Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers is just one of the objectives of the new choir, according to Debra Sheets, an associate professor in the UVic School of Nursing.

It is also a research project to learn more about the personal, social and even economic effects of group singing for people with dementia.

"We do know it taps into a different part of the brain," Sheets told On the Island's Khalil Akhtar.

Debra Sheets received funding from the Alzheimer Society of B.C. for the Voices in Motion project in which researchers will study how participating in an intergenerational choir benefits people with the disease and their caregivers. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

The Voices in Motion Choir will also include teenagers from St. Andrew's School. Sheets said the students will provide some support and, it is hoped, will develop relationships and learn about Alzheimer's disease in the process.

While professional conductor Erica Phare-Bergh leads the choir sections in singing different parts, academics from several disciplines will study how it affects quality of life, well-being and social networks. 

Researchers will also gather information about the choir's effect on caregivers and the progression of the disease.

Reducing social isolation 

​Sheets hopes the choir will also make dementia and Alzheimer's disease more visible in the community through public performances.

She saw the isolating effect of dementia in her own family, when her father experienced it and her mother took on the role of his caregiver. Their social connections shrank to just a few people as his behaviour became increasingly confusing to others. 

"She found fewer and fewer things to do with him," Sheets said. "It kind of got down to taking him down to Costco and pushing the cart around, because other people often don't understand what's going on."

"I'm hoping [the choir] will help to alleviate that for some people," she said.