Belfast couple keep on singing in the face of devastating effects of Alzheimer's
With more than 20,000 people having dementia in Northern Ireland, it has never been important to help improve the lives of those living with the disease – and their carers. In this, Dementia Action Week, Gail Bell finds out how singing is helping roll back the years for one Belfast couple
SINGING, as we all know, is good for the soul, but for many people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease, it is also good for the brain.
To help raise awareness of Dementia Action week (May 21-27) one north Belfast couple has spoken out about a very personal journey with Alzheimer's – and how a relatively new initiative in Northern Ireland, Singing for the Brain, is helping harmonise their present situation with happier times from their past.
Angela Smyth (69) from Slievedarragh Park is an enthusiastic member of the Belfast group which meets weekly in the Arts Ekta offices in Murray Street. For both herself and husband Pat – also 69 – it is a vibrant musical interlude to the slow, silencing effects of dementia.
A former music teacher and accomplished musician who used to play piano and guitar, Angela appreciates Singing for the Brain more than most and although she can no longer hold a conversation, it makes Pat's heart soar to hear his wife of 37 years sing without a moment's faltering hesitation or confusion.
"Alzheimer's disease has robbed Angela of many things, including her speech and dexterity, but it hasn't robbed her of her voice," he says. "Somehow, the words of songs she knew from years ago, are still there and still intact. It is wonderful the way music links into the memory in a way that speech can't."
Organised over the past few years by the Alzheimer's Society in Northern Ireland, Singing for the Brain also runs sessions in Donaghadee and Lisburn, attracting up to 40 participants to each of the three programmes.
Natasha Gilliland from the charity has seen the benefits at first hand and says the programme promotes communication and can also help with articulation, concentration, focus and, importantly, motivation.
"Specially trained facilitators deliver a varied programme of vocal, rhythmic and gentle physical exercise and dance, along with songs from different eras and in different styles," she says. "Even when many memories are hard to retrieve, music can sometimes still be recalled – if only for a short while.
"There are now 20,400 people with dementia living in Northern Ireland and this number will keep rising, but with the right support people can live well with the condition for a number of years. Initiatives like Singing for the Brain bring enjoyment back and allow people to feel good about themselves again."
The feel-good factor is backed up by medical science, with a recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease revealing that elderly people with mild-to-moderate dementia experienced improvements in their working memory after a 10-week music coaching intervention.
For the study, researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland recruited 89 individuals with various degrees of dementia and their care givers, who received musical coaching, including either regular singing or listening to familiar songs.
Other academic investigations have pointed to 'musical memory' being disproportionately preserved in dementia patients, while memories of old songs can activate specific areas of the brain which appear more resistant to the disease's damaging effects.
As a retired nurse, Pat is especially aware of the medical side of his wife's condition, but gets up each morning with renewed hope and humour.
"There really isn't much to laugh about when it comes to Alzheimer's disease, but we try to find the funny side of life," he says. "We both sing in St Patrick's Church choir in Donegall Street and we are long-time members of St Agnes Choral Society – we were involved in the recent production of 42nd Street in Belfast's Grand Opera House which was a huge success and great fun."
Singing, dance and music is almost a family obligation in the Smyth household, with Pat and Angela's son David (36) who has Down's syndrome, and twins Helen and Patrick (34) all involved in music in some form or another.
David was also on stage in St Agnes's production of 42nd Street, while his sister Helen was one of the principal dancers. Patrick, meanwhile, is a professional singer and recently sang in popular BBC One show, Strictly Come Dancing.
"Angela and I first met at rehearsals at St Agnes Choral Society and we have performed duets together – more at the after-parties, maybe, than on the stage," Pat recalls, laughing. "Singing is something we have always done together and we are still singing, in spite of this cruel disease."
It is a disease which takes a heavy toll on carers, as well as those who live with it, he says. And, although always able to face whatever injuries and tragedies presented themselves in hospital theatres over the years, Pat admits that, despite his medical background, the emotional side of Alzheimer's initially overwhelmed him.
"I suppose when Angela was eventually diagnosed, I wasn't that shocked," he admits, "because the signs were there long before we had a name for it.
"Five years ago, we had a diagnosis of a rare form called Posterior Cortical Atropy – the same type that the author, Terry Prachett, suffered from – but there were symptoms a long time before the diagnosis arrived."
Believed to have an earlier onset, Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA) affects a different area of the brain and started to affect Angela when she was in her early sixties.
"I noticed the usual things," Pat continues; "Angela became more and more forgetful and would repeat sentences that she had just said. The very first symptom she was aware of herself was the sensation of a 'click' in her head in the middle of the night, which was alarming, to say the least."
Worry and fear over the future built up to levels which the usually "easy going" husband and father says made him seek help for his own mental wellbeing.
"I think carers need to look after themselves so they can look after their loved ones," he says. "I found I needed to keep my own mind as healthy as I could and so I was given a course of antidepressants, as well as help from a psychologist.
"It was too easy to burst into tears, thinking about the conversations Angela and I used to have, or see the piano where Angela used to sit, singing and playing her music.
"Alzheimer's disease is a hidden illness and the fact that people can't see a wheelchair or something obvious, can make things worse – that's why I think the training of 'Dementia Friends' is so important, so people are more aware of the need for patience."
Angela's cousin, Liguori Dobbin, who works for Bank of Ireland, is one of 250 bank employees who have recently undertaken training to become a 'Dementia Friend' and it is something that Pat feels more businesses should consider.
"The biggest problems we have faced have been at airports, but the situation is improving," he adds. "The security scanning process is stressful enough at the best of times, but there was no way Angela was able to do the finger print identification herself, for instance.
"The fact that Belfast International Airport now offer lanyards to identify travellers with hidden disabilities is a step in the right direction. More people in shops, banks, trains and planes need to be aware of this devastating, invisible illness."
:: To find out more about Alzheimer’s Society events during Dementia Action Week, visit Alzheimers.org.uk.