The belief that people with Alzheimer's can't learn is being challenged by music therapists and community musicians who successfully teach sufferers the words and music to new songs.
Winthrop Professor Jane Davidson of The University of Western Australia's School of Music has been involved in creating singing groups for health and wellbeing. Two deal with dementia groups. One is at the Maurice Zeffert Jewish Retirement Home in Dianella which has about 25 members, the oldest of whom is 102. The other is with the Alzheimer's Association in Shenton Park - called Friends in Harmony - which also has about 25 members and is run by a volunteer carer.
"We're finding significant links between music and lucidity and focus for the dementia patients," Professor Davidson said. "Also, the carers feel much more energised and refreshed after taking part in the group, which is essential, given the 24 hours a day demands placed on many looking after a family member with dementia."
The other singing groups include a choir in Mandurah which has about 50 members and Stirling Silver Singers in Dianella whose 50 members have an average age of 80. Newly created groups falling under the philosophy and facilitation style developed by Professor Davidson with her teaching and research associates include choirs for the Parkinson's Association of WA and the University of the Third Age.
"The singers love a broad style of music from Abba and Susan Boyle, to musicals, and some classics such as Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria," Professor Davidson said.
"We know from researching across these groups that singing makes these older people feel more energised, fitter and well-exercised, and makes them feel healthier than activities such as playing bridge and even swimming.
"Singing in a group is also engaging and demanding. It's a good way for elderly people to make new friends, particularly if their spouse has died. In some groups, it's stimulated an interest in music generally and encouraged people to go to concerts with friends."
The choirs grew out of a 2007 pilot study in Dianella to provide opportunities for less advantaged lonely older people. UWA, the Silver Chain and Curtin University were involved.
Professor Davidson said the groups are always seeking more members.