Proof you really can sing those blues away

Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney leading the singing at the Uniting Mirinjani Nursing Home. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney leading the singing at the Uniting Mirinjani Nursing Home. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

We knew it in our hearts but now scientists have put the hard evidence behind our gut feelings: singing really does make us happier.

Maybe raspy-voiced blues singers felt it first but researchers at the Australian National University have concluded with full scientific rigour that singing can dispel gloom.

The researchers concluded there were "multiple benefits for residents including improved mood, calmness and reduced aggression".

They measured a host of symptoms of depression in very old people; symptoms including appetite and levels of distress.

They then measured the same symptoms eight weeks after the human guinea pigs had engaged in a program of singing together.

"This study provided us with evidence of the impact of the music making beyond its entertainment value - something we have always known anecdotally," ANU researcher and program facilitator Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney said.

"We now know the program improves wellbeing and depression symptoms."

She was speaking in between conducting singing sessions at a room in the Uniting Mirinjani Nursing Home in Weston in the ACT.

Singing the blues away

The Music Engagement Program was designed by researchers at the ANU to help people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The results have now been published in the academic journal, Evaluation and Program Planning.

The key is to get people to sing together. The ability to sing is one of the last of the human faculties to deteriorate with age, remaining even in people who have lost the ability to speak coherently. Old people sometimes remember songs from their youth when they have forgotten pretty well everything else.

"During the hour-long sessions the residents are encouraged to suggest songs and we get everyone singing, including staff, family and the research team," Dr Pike-Rowney said.

Brian Triglone. Picture: Karleen Minney

Brian Triglone. Picture: Karleen Minney

She said the daughter of one old person had also taken part and it helped her reconnect with her mother. The mother was more coherent after singing. It was as though the old lady had "come back", Dr Pike-Rowney said.

The daughter, who did not want to be identified, said: "I was able to talk to her about things as though she was just a normal mother, like she didn't have dementia."

The scientists confirmed what Brian Triglone already knew. In 2016, he decided to found the Alchemy Chorus to support people with dementia. The group meets for two hours at Hughes Community Centre every Thursday.

Mr Triglone had heard singing helped dementia sufferers after a friend sent him a link to a YouTube video.

He said the carers of people with dementia needed support.

"People think about, rightfully, how dreadful dementia is, but the carer has suffered with them. The direct carers suffer dreadfully," he said.

Mr Triglone said memories and feelings of singing stayed with choir members.

The Alchemy Choir. Picture: Karleen Minney

The Alchemy Choir. Picture: Karleen Minney

"I often quote a lady who had lost the ability to use cutlery. But when they went to lunch after choir, she could use cutlery, so who knows what goes on," he said.

The choir sessions left a deep and positive impression on the members, even if they didn't remember all the details.

"One of them said to me, 'My mum said I've just had a wonderful time but I can't remember where'," Mr Triglone said.

COVID-19 halted the choir's activities last year but Mr Triglone was confident this year would be different, saying: "Once everyone's been vaccinated, it'll be a different story."

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This story Proof you really can sing those blues away first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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