Running a Dementia Choir: A Guide
Like all support groups, a choir is a group that needs three underlying elements to succeed:
- A home base, a supportive and safe environment where you can get together.
- A dedicated group of supporters.
- The knowledge base and skills to run the activities of your group.
For a dementia choir, the best home base will be:
For your dedicated supporters, there are four teams:
- Fully accessible for people with mobility issues, including parking, bathrooms and spaces.
- Secure so that people cannot exit the space without being noticed.
- Have a breakout space or quiet room where people can withdraw if needed.
- Have a workable kitchen/food preparation area/cafe option for break time.
- Noise-friendly and acoustically good, with musical and sound system support.
- Be friendly and welcoming.
- Below or no cost.
- Have additional resources that members can draw upon (e.g. community services).
- The music team will lead the singing and musical activities.
- The people team who support your participants to manage.
- The admin team supports registers, rosters and all of the paperwork.
- The catering team organises, prepares food, serves and cleans.
The knowledge base and skills needed to run a dementia choir include:
- Musicianship, vocal coaching and choral conducting,
- Understanding and skills to manage the presenting issues of dementia,
- Understanding and skills to manage the presenting issues of unpaid carers,
- Information on local referral pathways to refer people to supports outside your scope.
- Communication skills to assist people who may experience feelings like grief and loss, emotional triggers and restlessness,
- Volunteer and participant management skills include telephone lists, training, debriefing, rosters, governance, legal, venue liaison, and more.
Support and training are available for most roles and information needs. Accessing training, debriefing and coordination is essential to building a sustainable group. Supporters should know the emergency plan of the venue.
In most dementia choirs in Australia, the groups are run by volunteers who we could not thank enough. In principle, a volunteer should not be required to pay expenses from their pocket, so an excellent petty cash system is needed, even if people decide not to claim a reimbursement. Plan and consider how to cover at least the incidental costs of your volunteers.
Each team needs several people so that we can break the jobs down into smaller roles and share the jobs between three or four people. For a dementia choir, the four teams are more prominent and need a more extensive set of skills than many other support groups we work with. There may be overlap, and some people can work in many areas, but here is a brief informal overview of the four main teams.
The Music Team
Everyone can sing! However, helping others to sing is a more complex role. Choir leaders may be professional conductors, music teachers, music/speech therapists or experienced amateur musicians. Be prepared to pay an honorarium to attract the right person or people for you, as these skills are in high demand. The Choir Director(s) must work with you through agreed, shared guidelines.
Your music team should:
- Include grounding and breathing exercises, an essential part of a dementia choir to pass on skills to carers and participants that they can use every day.
- Consult with the participants about the music and actively encourage feedback and reflection.
- Be prepared to adapt when a session needs to be changed to respond to issues on the day.
- Adjust learning, part singing, percussion and movements depending on the choir.
With dementia, reading and learning can be significant challenges, so some choir music will not work effectively with the whole group. There are also various practical issues: copyright, sound equipment and musical arrangements.
The People Team
A family/friend supporter in our groups accompanies each person with dementia. However, as well as this safety element, the choir needs excellent communicators who should:
- Meet and farewell people who come.
- Monitor the participants for any issues arising.
- Respond effectively when an issue is experienced.
- Ensure people are seated safely and can manage any movements.
- Take control of an emergency.
This team should have at least one member trained in First Aid. Spaces should be kept clear of trip hazards. Safety and well-being are the main concerns of this role, but joining in with singing and conversation is important, too. Tears are OK. Please encourage and accept both tears and laughter. Stand by with the tissues! A person doesn’t necessarily need to step away if they are emotional, but that option should be available.
The supporter of the person with dementia can sometimes need as much support as the person with dementia, e.g., mobility, fatigue, dietary restrictions, caring overload or other needs. It is important to be able to refer all choir participants to external support and have these details readily available. There must be a strong roster to manage this team.
The Admin Team
Many background processes are involved in running a group effectively and efficiently. Across this team, there are many small roles. This team should:
- Manage intake and attendance records.
- Keep track of insurance, governance and official requirements.
- Liaise with the venue.
- Schedule a roster and manage the calendar.
- Have a contact email and phone number for external enquiries.
- Keep an accurate register of everyone involved, including emergency contact info and photo permissions.
- Ensure follow-up processes for any jobs arising.
This team would also thrive with people with good IT, administration and systems skills. It helps if they also like to sing and can join in all the activities.
The Catering Team
It is possible to BYO or use a nearby café, but a shared break where we eat together is a valuable social tool often underestimated.
The catering team should:
- Label foods clearly and be aware of food intolerances and severe allergies.
- Monitor and restock basic supplies.
- Ensure that food includes and encourages healthy choices as well as treats.
- Encourage hand washing and make hand sanitiser available.
- Prepare any food/drinks carefully and safely.
- Ensure a clean and hygienic food space.
A dementia choir is a wonderful and rewarding experience for everyone. There are opportunities for everyone to participate in many ways, and singing together is fun! We wish you all the success with your choir, and if you are in Queensland, don’t hesitate to contact us to explore any support you need.