Few songs could be more apt for this choir to perform than The Beatles’ In My Life. As they belted out the lyrics, “there are places I’ll remember, all my life, though some have changed”, there wasn’t a dry eye in the 2,000-strong audience.
Because all 20 members of the choir have been touched by dementia.
The inspiring group was formed by Line of Duty star Vicky McClure and the song has a special significance to the 35-year-old actress, who chose it for the choir’s big performance in a new BBC documentary.
“It’s all about love and memory,” says Vicky, who lost her grandmother to the condition. “It struck a chord with me when my Nonna was diagnosed.
“This song is like it’s written for somebody who’s living with dementia. This song is about memories and sometimes we remember certain things and sometimes we won’t.
“It’s about love that we never forget, because it’s a feeling, not a memory.”
Vicky formed the choir after her gran Iris died from dementia in 2015.
The choir, who all live with dementia, rehearsed over three months leading up to their big performance at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and felt the benefits of singing.
“My Nonna inspired me to join the fight against dementia,” Vicky says. “She was very bold, bright, had a cracking sense of humour, a very dirty laugh. The dementia stripped all that. It leaves the shell of you.
“I saw how music helped her, changing her mood, calming her down, and for a while bringing us back to the old Nonna.”
The choir members range in age from 32 to 87 and are from Vicky’s home town of Nottingham. Among them is ex-music teacher Rae Burton who hadn’t touched a piano for 10 years after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
With encouragement from Vicky and choirmaster Mark De-Lisser, the 53-year-old is able to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise perfectly.
“It’s like a glorious reawakening,” she says. “I feel good. It’s been 10 years, I don’t know where that’s come from.”
Mum-of-three Julie Hill was a county council deputy leader but she had to give up work after her diagnosis.
The 50-year-old says: “Before I had my diagnosis I was never in. Every day I was at work, in the evenings I was having to go to different parish council meetings. Suddenly that’s all gone.”
Julie raised her three daughters alone but the roles are reversed, with her girls looking after her.
Her 25-year-old daughter Erin says: “I panic about her 24/7. The last couple of months she’s gotten a lot worse. Movements, speech, everything has gotten worse. We’ve always relied on my mum. It’s hard. She doesn’t like it but it’s what we’ve got to do.”
Julie adds: “Having to let the girls take responsibility for what should still be mine, your independence, having to let go to somebody else, it’s really hard.”
Joining the choir has given Julie a new lease of life.
“Music makes you feel alive. I can’t waste my time thinking, how sorry I am this has happened to me. I don’t have time,” she says.
“I don’t know how long I’ve got to remember things, I need to pack in as much as I can and remember it.”
Choir member Betty Tattersall was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago but when she puts her record player on it improves her mood.
The 82-year-old sings Que Será, Será in her kitchen and knows every word.
“If I’d been down in the dumps I’d start singing. That makes me feel a lot better,” she says.
A latecomer to the choir is 87-year-old Maurice Keeling, a former professional singer who performed for the Queen and Princess Margaret.
But dementia has robbed him of his voice and he is unable to reach many of the notes.
“It’s something I’ve done all my life and I can’t do it. It’s unbelievable,” he says.
But Maurice works up the courage to audition for a solo part and is overwhelmed by the applause from his fellow singers.
Professor Seb Crutch, of University College London, said: “Music is really having an impact on people. Their temperature goes up in rehearsal, with heart rate and movement going down.
“This means people are focused and calm. The results related with how they were saying they were feeling. It’s very positive. The drugs we’ve got don’t slow down the disease, they help you to function better. Choirs do the same – they help you function.
“Music has something above and beyond being with friends and socialising. There’s a special ingredient.”
Vicky hopes music therapy for dementia patients will be rolled out into care homes and urges families to give it a go.
“Music is as powerful as a drug,” she says. “There isn’t any medication to stop dementia, but music is key to making people with dementia feel better. We’ve got to share this now to the masses. You’ll see the benefits on your own family.”
She is determined to bring about change. “It’s clear the Government don’t put enough funding into research. I am passionate about looking into that,” she says.
And she admits she worries there could be a genetic link. “I don’t know what I’m going to die of, it could be dementia. But I can’t live my life between now and whenever, worrying about it to that degree.
“We did discuss in the documentary whether I wanted a test that can give you an idea as to whether or not you have the possibility of getting dementia, but I’d rather not know.”
Youngest member Dan, 32, has dramatic improvement after joining inspiring group
The youngest member of Vicky’s choir is 32-year-old Daniel Bradbury, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia two years ago.
It is caused by a genetic mutation inherited from his dad Adrian, who died from the condition when he was just 36.
Fewer than 600 people worldwide have been diagnosed with it. But Daniel’s condition improved dramatically after he and wife Jordan took part in Vicky’s choir.
Jordan, 30, says: “When we got there we were greeted by the most amazing, inspiring people.
“Dan’s mood and how he was throughout the whole process was so much better. It was like seeing the old Dan again.” Jordan knows Daniel’s time is limited, as his memory worsens by the day, and devastatingly, the dad also struggles to be around his two-year-old twins Jasper and Lola.
“His tolerance of the children is really low,” says Jordan. “We have small doses, a five-minute cuddle, then we break away because Dan struggles with the noise.” Jordan, who married Daniel last year, now wants to make the most of their remaining time.
“It’s the longest and cruellest goodbye,” she says. “I think I’ve finally come to a place – not of acceptance – but where I am accepting of what is happening to him. It doesn’t mean I’m not angry at what’s happening.”
- Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure, BBC1, May 2 at 8pm.
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