Connecting Through Choirs

Members article

By Hilary Lee – Chair of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care (Australia) & President of the Spark of Life © Dementia Care International


The Choir of Hard Knocks became a successful example of the positive impact singing together can have. This group of Australian homeless and disadvantaged people came to prominence as the subject of a five-part ABC documentary television series in 2007. Labelled and shunned by society, its members found a new sense of purpose when given nurture and encouragement as a group.

The benefits of being part of a choir for people with dementia are significant. Most importantly, choirs enable each person to feel valued and included, and provides them with a meaningful role in society. Choirs can connect and reconnect people who have dementia with their families and their supportive partners. Finally, by singing with the support of a skilled choir leader, people with dementia can experience the ability to learn new songs as well as remember old ones, and to express deep feelings that connect soul-to-soul with the listener.

Choirs provide the ideal social environment for personal connections and facilitate communication at a deep level. A successful choir leader has spark, exudes positive energy, and is fun and playful. It appears that people with dementia are able to tap into their mirror neurons, brain cells that are active both when people perform an action and when they watch it being performed, and will copy the leader’s words, energy, and sense of fun.

Oliver Sachs in his book, Musicophelia, describes how singing together connects people in a powerful way that strengthens the experience of being in a community. He also said, ‘There can be longer term effects of music for people with dementia- improvements of mood, behaviour, even cognitive function- which can persist for hours or days after they have been set off by music. ‘ He discusses an actual ‘binding’ or the ‘marriage’ of nervous systems accomplished by rhythm- not only heard but also internalised identically by all who are present. Rhythm turns listeners into active participants and synchronises the brain and mind.

Ideally, the choir leader needs to have a musical background, an ability to select meaningful songs, and the skills to engage and nurture people who have dementia. There is also an art in being able to tap into the right music selections to enable participants to be expressive or tell their own life story.

Kirsten Robertson Gillam conducted a pilot study and trial comparing the impact of music with reminiscing on people with dementia. Music was found to be an effective communication tool to convey thoughts, feelings, and ideas as part of a collective energy. ‘Choir therapy connects with creative abilities in old(er) people if they are given a conducive environment. It helps elderly people to become more socially aware and form meaningful relationships with others… (they) are challenged to learn a new skill through an approach in which there is no such thing as a mistake. We all need to express our inner essence and celebrate life every day. Choir therapy gives elderly people meaning and purpose, and helps them to engage in life once more.’

This concept of having meaning and purpose is in parallel with the principles of the Spark of Life Club Program. If a person with dementia gets up and knows its choir day, they will make an effort in everything they do and rise to the occasion to be their best. Working towards special goals and performances also gives a feeling of pride as the group represents their home and community together.

Here are some basic principles from the Spark of Life Club Program that can  ensure the success of a choir for people with dementia.

Enable the choir leader to become a Spark of Life Facilitator with the particular mindset, attitude, and skill to produce magic.

The choir leader,  is not a ‘Teacher’ or ‘Motivator,’ even if this may be part of what they do- instead they take on a mindset of stepping back and inviting, encouraging and embracing the members spontaneous contributions and facilitating the best in each person.

Understand the Importance of Rituals.

Rituals are established ceremonies that lift the spirit and build trust, create familiarity, safety and the joy of recognition, and reduce insecurity, fear, and anxiety. By investing your time, energy and the best of yourself – your heart and soul – in inviting members, you ensure they will arrive in a positive frame of mind, excited and expectant that something special is going to happen.

Use Name Badges

Name badges are a natural part of club situations. Using Spark of Life Name Badges provide people with dementia the opportunity to socialize and spontaneously interact with others. Name badges not only help the person with dementia but everyone else address each other by their preferred name.

Ensure a Conducive Venue

Find a room that has a door that can be closed to keep out all distractions and interruptions and has at least one window that allows daylight into the room. You can be creative in finding a suitable space such as a dining, lounge room or end of a corridor that can be partitioned off.

Maurice Zeffert Home, a Spark of Life facility in WA, has a highly regarded choir whose members include those with advanced dementia, as well as staff and family members. The observed outcomes of this choir included a female resident who had tears in her eyes when singing a Yiddish song as it had been sung by her mother to her 100 years ago, and a man who expressed with amazement that the music therapist could sing the songs so well and give so much love.

To see this choir in action is an extremely moving experience as frail and elderly participants are able to communicate with meaning using powerful voices. Maurice Zeffert was careful to set participants up for success with appropriate books, support and highly skilled facilitators. The emotions expressed by members of the choir are always heartfelt and audiences say they can feel the years of wisdom from songs they chose and the deep expression behind the words.

Belonging to a choir enables people with dementia to have the opportunity to create significant connections with others through a common purpose. Singing together enables the choir to work towards a joint goal, connect with any audience, and create magic. Support can come in the form of more singers that are able-bodied and people providing general assistance such as family, volunteers or carers. It is all about connection and friendship in a supportive and fun environment. This develops a sense of pride and purpose that comes with boosting self-esteem and a sense of belonging.

For more information on the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care (Australia)  visit their website:


Oliver Sachs, Musicophelia, Tales of Music and the Brain (2007) – Revised & Expanded (2008) Paperback, Vintage Books

Kirsten Robertson-Gillam “Hello in there” Published Music Council of Australia 2010


Further Reading:

Maurice Zeffert Choir Report  (Community story)