How a Singing Circle Is Turning Lonely Seniors Into Best Friends

More than an amateur choir, Sing for Your Life Canada helps music lovers connect with their community.

Nigel Brown of Sing for Your Life CanadaPhoto: Andrew Lipsett/Reader's Digest Canada

Nigel Brown of Sing for Your Life Canada

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 up to 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.”

EDITORS’ NOTE: Nigel Brown died on August 31, 2017, shortly after our October issue went to press. We here at Reader’s Digest offer our sincere condolences to his family and friends, especially his wife, Jill Hilderman.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada