Sasha Judelson leads participants at The Circle of Music

Intergenerational choir started by Community Music alumna gives people with dementia a chance to sing

Waterloo – It’s not your typical-looking choir, composed as it is of clusters of one teenager, one person living with dementia and one care partner, usually a family member. Launched last year as a pilot project and returning on Thursday, Oct. 5 as a funded, research-based program, The Circle of Music, started by a Wilfrid Laurier University graduate student, brings together people of different generations and abilities to enjoy music together. The first meeting of the new season will be open to the media.

Sasha Judelson, now a graduate of Laurier’s Community Music program, originally conceived of the choir for her master’s capstone project. She was inspired by intergenerational choirs in other cities but adapted the concept to local needs, as articulated by some of her community partners. The University of Waterloo’s Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program (MAREP), the Alzheimer Society of Waterloo-WellingtonCameron Heights Collegiate Institute and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church are the community partners.

Judelson is now continuing her involvement with the project as a post-graduate researcher. She and her faculty advisor, Professor Lee Willingham, received one-year funding for it from the New Horizons for Seniors program of Employment and Social Development Canada and the Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation through MAREP.

“This is an example of where music goes beyond the accuracy of note playing or singing and performance-style practices,” said Willingham. “This is where music reaches into the hearts and minds of people in ways that are really incalculable.”

The funding will not only allow Judelson, Willingham and their partners to run the program at no charge and allow for a slight expansion to about 35 participants from 25, it will enable them to conduct research on the effectiveness and impact of the program. For instance, one of the questions Judelson will be researching is whether songs with shorter lyrics are more effective in meeting the goals of the group.

The choir already focuses on songs that are likely to be familiar to the participating seniors, such as folk tunes and songs from movies and musicals. As choir director, Judelson offers ideas on how to express the music as it might have been originally intended but does not focus on performance or perfection.

“We want to make good music but the music becomes a vehicle for the community, connection and support it provides,” said Judelson.

Singers are not grouped by whether they’re sopranos, tenors, etc. The volunteer high school student sits between the person living with dementia and the care partner and facilitates the person with dementia’s participation, for example by ensuring they’re at the right place on the lyrics sheet. Part of the point is to create meaningful interaction between the teenager and the person with dementia. The other reason is to give the care partner a chance to focus only on the joy of making music.

Participating students have to give the program a high level of commitment. The student is always paired with the same person living with dementia and care partner, which allows the trio to get to know each other well while providing the predictability a person living with dementia needs.

“The students quickly come to understand the importance of their weekly presence and look forward to both the singing and the social time that follows,” said Judelson.

Although performance is not a focus of The Circle of Music, members of the media are welcome to the first meeting of the 2017/18 school year. A few experienced participants will be available for interviews following the singing. The choir will be meeting at 3 p.m. on Oct. 5 at St. Peter's Lutheran Church, 49 Queen St. N., Kitchener.

The choir is still open to a limited number of new participants. Interested people should contact Sasha Judelson at jude6103@mylaurier.ca or 519.342.4764.

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