Stay Tuned

Sing for Your Life Canada founder Nigel Brown turns mu­sic-lov­ing se­niors into friends. VIBHU GAIROLA

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - BY VIBHU GAIROLA PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY AN­DREW LIPSETT

AS THE SUM­MER fades away, the lights flicker on at the Her­itage, a se­niors’ cen­tre in West Kelowna, B.C. Jok­ing and chat­ting, 50 par­tic­i­pants take their seats, form­ing a large cir­cle. For the next hour and a half, the group belts out nos­tal­gic se­lec­tions from their hand­outs—“Edel­weiss,” “Some­where My Love” and Vera Lynn dit­ties from the 1940s.

But Sing for Your Life Canada is more than an am­a­teur choir. Es­tab­lished by ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Nigel Brown in 2009, the or­ga­ni­za­tion was en­vi­sioned as equal parts ac­tiv­ity (the ses­sions en­cour­age el­derly mem­bers to so­cial­ize and stay en­gaged) and ad­vo­cacy (Sing for Your Life is out­spo­ken about health is­sues such as de­men­tia and of­fers strate­gic cop­ing mech­a­nisms). Brown is no stranger to char­ity work: he co-founded the Cana­dian chap­ter of the Make-A-Wish Foun­da­tion in 1983. And it was Brown’s brother who founded the first in­car­na­tion of Sing for Your Life, based in Bri­tain.

At 73, Brown’s mother, a song­bird, moved into a res­i­den­tial care fa­cil­ity in Kent, U.K., that didn’t have a for­mal mu­sic pro­gram. Her mood plum­meted. At the time, Brown says, “we just couldn’t un­der­stand why. But lone­li­ness is an im­mense health haz­ard. The peo­ple who re­ally need us most are those who are de­pressed and iso­lated, sit­u­a­tions that are both com­monly as­so­ci­ated with de­men­tia. We pro­vide them with a com­mu­nity.”

The ses­sions are the re­sult of two clin­i­cal stud­ies con­ducted by the U.K.–based Sid­ney De Haan Re­search Cen­tre for Arts and Health, which ex­am­ines the role of par­tic­i­pa­tive art ac­tiv­i­ties in pro­mot­ing in­di­vid­ual well-be­ing. The re­search af­firmed that sub­jects re­ported nu­mer­ous ben­e­fits, from bet­ter lung func­tion and breath­ing to stress re­duc­tion and im­proved mood.

“The goal is to get our mem­bers’ brains to re­ally work,” says mu­sic fa­cil­i­ta­tor Pa­tri­cia Dal­gleish, who over­sees a satel­lite group of be­tween 25 and 35 reg­u­lars who meet ev­ery sec­ond week at Sar­sons Beach in Kelowna. A typ­i­cal ses­sion in­volves much more than singing and clap­ping along. At times, Dal­gleish will switch up the rhythms to fa­mil­iar tunes, pose trivia ques­tions be­tween num­bers or chal­lenge at­ten­dees to guess the name of the song she’s play­ing on the pi­ano.

Dur­ing live­lier ses­sions, mem­bers strike up a dance; other days, Dal­gleish takes re­quests. Pop­u­lar picks in­clude “Que Sera, Sera,” “When I’m 64” and “A Nightin­gale Sang in Berke­ley Square.”

“We al­ways fin­ish up with Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again,’ and I take that with me un­til the next time,” says Doreen Mur­doch, 82. A re­tired re­al­tor, Mur­doch knows the power of a sin­ga­long: in the fi­nal years of her hus­band’s life, mu­sic was one of the few things that had the power to draw him out of his Alzheimer’s. She found Sing for Your Life through an events list­ing in the news­pa­per in 2013 and has been a fre­quent at­tendee at the Sar­sons Beach cir­cle ever since, of­ten bring­ing along friends to check things out for them­selves.

The sense of com­mu­nity among reg­u­lars has strength­ened with time. Brown ad­mits the West Kelowna group— which started out as a crew of fewer than 15 peo­ple—might be too big to han­dle mov­ing for­ward, but he jokes that friend­ships within the cir­cle have grown so tight that mem­bers would mutiny if he tried to split them up.

Brown’s dream is for Sing for Your Life Canada to spill out of the Okana­gan re­gion and run na­tion­wide. As he works on gath­er­ing the funds to host more col­lab­o­ra­tive song groups and in­crease the fre­quency of cur­rent ses­sions, mem­bers like Mur­doch keep on trilling. “You don’t have to be a singer,” she says. “You just have to want to ex­pe­ri­ence the hap­pi­ness of singing.”

Brown jokes that friend­ships have grown so tight that mem­bers would mutiny if he tried to split them up.

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