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‘It was not just about the singing. It was about their journey and the changes in them as they came and left the singing arena’

Pamela Bruder’s research found that choral singing in aged care facilities lifted the spirits of residents and discovered hidden talents. 

Interview by Tejasvi Hari Krishna
 

‘As part of my work as a program co-ordinator in aged care facilities, I bring residents together and start singing groups. During these sessions I began to see changes in my choristers that I did not see in them at other times.

My PhD was about understanding these transformations. In the beginning, the biggest issue was getting the staff of the facility to take the project seriously. They didn’t understand what could happen through the choir. With the residents, I had less of a problem starting the groups.

I’ve worked with the elderly for the past 16 years and I’ve seen that life in a facility can be very isolating.

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When people are admitted to an aged care institution, they’re assessed as either “high-care” or “low-care” according to their physical needs. If their dementia is severe, they are admitted into a special unit.

When I started the choir I brought people together irrespective of their medical conditions. It used to take a bit of persuasion sometimes. Coaxing reluctant or tired seniors out of their set routine was part of the job.

But in the end, the choristers would shuffle into the recreation room, some in wheelchairs, some slowly pushing their walkers and some of my “high-care” singers were wheeled in on their long easy-chairs.

My choristers were between 70 and 95 and most of them were survivors of the Holocaust. The songs I picked were generally ones I thought they were most familiar with. Some were commonly known Yiddish songs or music from the 40s and the 50s. Once in a while, I would throw in some new numbers which they weren’t as familiar with.

Recently, they enjoyed singing Count on meby Bruno Mars. The song was quite energetic and the lyrics were positive and uplifting. This was usually what we aimed for. The sessions would generally start with the controlled chaos of the choristers settling into their seats, sometimes with their relatives beside them.

‘I wanted to know what they were feeling and what it meant to be coherent through song and rhythm when you cannot be coherent otherwise.’

But as soon as I started the warm-up session, they would all follow me. “Sit up straight, straighten your backs and take deep breaths,” were the instructions. They would immediately start raising themselves in their seats and become alert for the start of the session.

Even the choristers with lower capabilities would start focussing and join in. Then we would start, with all our voices lifted in unity. The changes I noticed in the patients were gradual.

Jack, a 92-year-old suffering from dementia, was one of my favourites. At first he would refuse to come to the sessions because he was really anxious about missing his visitors. 

Such severe anxiety was quite common in the residents suffering from dementia, but one day, when he managed to join us, we accidentally discovered that Jack was a fantastic drummer. He had never drummed before but he spontaneously started playing complicated rhythms. It got louder and louder and everybody stopped what they were doing just to watch him.

He was recognised among the other choristers and even the staff as a drummer and I could see that was raising his self-esteem.

‘I wanted to know what they were feeling and what it meant to be coherent through song and rhythm when you cannot be coherent otherwise.’

Whenever I stepped into his unit after that, he would sit up, recognise me, point to himself and call out: “Pamela! Do you need me? I’m here for you. You can count on me.”

There might have been a scientific explanation to what was going on, but I decided to look at the emotive side of these occurrences. I wanted to know what they were feeling and what it meant to be coherent through song and rhythm when you cannot be coherent otherwise.

As part of the research, I filmed two of our choir sessions and how the whole choir came together each time. It was not just about the singing. It was about their journey and the changes in them as they came and left the singing arena.

I conducted interviews with some of the choristers and the relatives of certain residents, as well as the nursing and lifestyle staff of the facility. The relatives of my choristers told me that they were seeing these changes as well. Jack’s son mentioned that his father had always worked hard and had never explored his passion for music, but being part of the choir had enabled him to do that finally.

One of my other choristers was suffering from advancing dementia and was very difficult to deal with.

Her daughter would join us for every choir session and was able to sit with her mother and link arms and interact with her.

‘They were not seeing themselves as a bundle of incapacity or deficiency while they were in the choir.’

She said that the choir had given a small bit of her mother back to her. The findings from my research were much deeper than I had expected. 

From a social context, the elderly are perceived as a non-productive burden. In the context of the choir, they came together as equals.

During an interview, one of the residents, Frida, said: “I dread every other day, but on Tuesday I think ‘tomorrow is singing day, it’s Wednesday’. It makes my whole week.”

They were not seeing themselves as a bundle of incapacity or deficiency while they were in the choir.

I still conduct the choir sessions once a week. In terms of the value of my research in the field, I believe that my work contributes on a couple of levels. It is a challenging job to run any program while catering to a group of people of varying levels of mental and physical capacity.

In some ways, the job lacks the respect and the course structure that it should have. I would want my work to be used as a training tool for people who work in lifestyle for aged care.

The research can speak to the study of ageing as well. We have to stop looking at ageing just from a biomedical perspective. Old age is not a condition, it is life. It is not about what they can no longer do, it is about what they still can do.’  

Pamela Bruder’s thesis is titled: “We are here: an ethnography of old age, institutional life and the body-self in communal singing.”

My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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