Angela O'Neill is a Singing for the Brain group leader who worked with Vicky McClure on the filming of Our Dementia Choir, the two-part documentary on BBC One. In this interview she tells us about what it was like to work with Vicky, and why music has such a powerful effect on people with dementia.
How long have you been working for Alzheimer’s Society and what does your role involve?
I have been the Singing for the Brain Leader for Nottinghamshire since August 2017 and for South Derbyshire since January 2019. I work in 10 locations across the counties, enabling and encouraging people living with dementia and their carers to enjoy singing in a group. We sing songs from Bing Crosby to Abba, from The Beatles to Judy Garland and everything in between, as well as enjoying some relaxed social time.
What was your involvement in Our Dementia Choir?
Only a month after I started in my role, I was approached by a media production company who explained they wanted to make a TV programme about the effects of music on people with a diagnosis of dementia and could they come and observe a Singing for the Brain group.
They came along and joined in with all the singing and had a great time. They asked if I would be able to help with a few things in the lead up to filming, which I was happy to do.
Before I knew it, I was being introduced to Mark De Lisser (member of Kingdom Choir, arranged Stand By Me for the Royal wedding and choirmaster extraordinaire!) and I was asked to assist him in directing the choir!
Vicky is truly one of the most lovely people I know
I first met Vicky on day one of filming - I knew who she was but hadn't really seen her on TV at that point. She is truly one of the most lovely people I know. Always happy and smiling and very generous with her time. Not at all 'celeb-like'.
She remains in contact with the choir via the Facebook group, she has been to a few choir sessions since filming ended and we've all been out for a drink on Saturday night!
What was the best moment of the Dementia Choir experience for you?
Honestly, too many to list - including the final performance. But the standout thing for me was how the choir bonded as a group - these 20 people who had never met before supported each other, helped each other and laughed with each other every week. And still do. They have all become one big family and it's wonderful to be a part of that.
Why do you think music is such a powerful way to connect with people who have dementia?
I have talked to many people both in Our Dementia Choir and in my Singing for the Brain groups about how they feel music affects them - and the most common response is that it makes them happy. They sing in the morning and they have 'a good day' afterwards.
Where words fail, music speaks
A quote we have used a lot throughout filming and in promoting the programme is 'Where words fail, music speaks' and there is no clearer proof of that than singing with people affected by dementia.
There are a few people who perhaps don't communicate with speech any more as their dementia has worsened, but they will join in with familiar songs. The responses to these moments are usually emotional ones - both from the person living with dementia and from their carers. It's beautiful to see.
Find a Singing for the Brain group near you
At Alzheimer’s Society we run Singing for the Brain groups for people affected by dementia. They are a great way for people to enjoy community singing and celebrate the joy of singing together, like the Dementia Choir in Vicky’s programme.
If you’d like to find a Singing for the Brain group near you, enter your postcode into our service finder to see your local groups.
Find local services near you
Use our Dementia Directory to find Singing for the Brain groups and other services near you.