Northern Ireland news

Charity zoom choir a lifeline for the 'desperately lonely' during lockdown

Erica Gioka, a retired art teacher who suffers from asthma, has said her participation in a charity Zoom choir has brought untold benefits as she struggled with loneliness during lockdown
Seanín Graham

SINGING virtually with a charity choir has helped transform the lives of people struggling with "desperate loneliness" and illness during lockdown - with rehearsals doubling to meet demand.

The Chest, Heart & Stroke 'Inspire Choir' began as a 10-week pilot pilot three years ago and kept going after extraordinary life-changing benefits were reported, with 72 per cent finding their speech had improved and 67 per cent experiencing better mental health.

A decision was made to move the sessions online last spring, with the programme opened to all the charity's patients including shielders living with chronic respiratory conditions and heart disease as well as stroke survivors.

For Erica Gioka, a retired art teacher in her eighties from Newcastle in Co Down, the loss of her husband made the isolation of lockdown very difficult.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, she led an active life and loved swimming at her local pool and driving into Belfast for trips.

Suffering from asthma and a chronic cough, her involvement in the Zoom choirs became her "weekly highlight".

"I live alone. Since my husband died, the house is silent. And although I’m a positive person, I get

desperately lonely. When lockdown came, there was just nothing," she said.

‘When I put the Choir Zoom on, I open all the doors in the house so the music can travel to the

furthest corners. Our choir mistress, Karen, has such an infectious personality. She greets each one of us by name - it makes you feel quite special.

"It is amazing how much my breathing has improved but the other benefits are tremendous, I have a full list. The choir helps my memory. It makes you feel like you belong to people who care about you. When you’re lonely, it’s lovely to have a person smiling at you. It relieves stress and if you are depressed, sad or in grief, it helps with that. It gives me so much pleasure and improves how I feel.

"I mean, how can you have a glum face when Karen starts singing, 'Show me the way to Amarillo'…?”

Pauline Millar, who heads up respiratory services for the charity, said the results of the original pilot were "nothing short of inspiring".

Reduced anxiety and chest pains as well as improved sleep was reported by many of the choristers.

"As well as improving lung function, we saw such social and mental health improvement. We knew

then that the choir could provide a lifeline of support for our patients in lockdown," she said.

Former civil servant, John Dempsey (62) from Carryduff, suffered a major heart attack at the age of 36 and a second attack 10 years ago.

He has used the charity's support services throughout his recovery and decided to sign up to the choir.

"When I first joined I couldn’t hold a note for more than 23 seconds, now I’m close to 70. That’s the difference that the Inspire Choir has made for me," he said.

"As well as that, I get to see the same faces every week. It’s very relaxing and comforting to know

that you have people around you who have suffered the same problems. You pick things up about your health, remedies, what other people have found useful.

"I would absolutely recommend it - whether you can sing or not."

It is hoped the choir can meet and sing together once further restrictions are eased.

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