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The magic of music and volunteering

Singer Joe McElderry smiling, sat with a group of older people

“Music makes you feel something..."

Pop singer Joe McElderry visits Age UK North Tyneside to see firsthand the difference their singing group makes to the lives of older people living with dementia.



It’s Monday morning, the sun is shining, and the sound of joyous singing comes from a church on the corner of a pretty square.

It’s here that Age UK North Tyneside hosts Singalong Memories, a group for older people living with dementia and their families. For visitors with cognitive issues, it's an opportunity to reconnect with the music that’s soundtracked their lives - as well as the memories it evokes. It's also a chance to socialise with familar faces and new ones alike.

First and foremost, though, it’s a chance to have a good old sing-song.

Reconnecting with a passion

It’s certainly appreciated by Leon, who devoted most of his life to music, performing with a variety of bands across the country, mostly with his brother. “We’d perform songs by The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Beach Boys that kind of era,” explains Leon. “Over the years it developed into a very wide repertoire.” While Leon enjoyed making records, it’s live performance that remains his greatest passion.

An older man, Leon, stood with Joe McElderry
Fellow musicians, Leon and Joe, get to know one another
An older man, Leon, stood with Joe McElderry
Fellow musicians, Leon and Joe, get to know one another

Unfortunately, that passion was put on hold by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures. Leon went from gigging 2-3 nights a week to doing nothing at all. “I had a lot of years in the entertainment business and I’ve missed it badly,” explains Leon. It was during this time that he also received his dementia diagnosis.

“It was a really difficult time for both of us,” explains Angela, Leon’s wife, who attends the group with him. “I was looking for something to take the place of his music career. It was our mental health worker who suggested Age UK. So, I rang up and we had some video meetings, which took some getting used to for us – but the sessions were a lot of fun. Then I heard about this singing group, which had started back up again at that point. With Leon’s singing background, I thought it would be good for him to come along, and he loved it from the first session.”

So much so, in fact, that Leon has attended Singalong Memories every week since. “This group has brought the pleasure of music back to me,” says Leon. That pleasure is illustrated when Leon embarks on a solo number, performing a rousing version of New York, New York. In acknowledgement of where we are, though, he changes the lyrics to ‘North Shields, North Shields’, much to the joy and amusement of the rest of the group.

Initially, Leon would attend the group on his own, but since a mild stroke two months ago left him unable to drive, Angela comes along too, which she’s more than happy to do. “To be honest, I love it as much as he does,” she beams. “But the most important thing is Leon having something to look forward to.”

Joe joins in

There's an added air of excitement in the group today as they have a special guest visiting two, in fact. The first is Joe McElderry, the singer-songwriter who came to fame after winning The X Factor in 2009. And he’s joined by his grandmother, Hilda, who’s become something of a star in her own right, after appearing with Joe in videos on his social media.

Joe McElderry stood singing
Joe sings a number for the group
Joe McElderry stood singing
Joe sings a number for the group

Joe and Hilda waste little time in getting involved with proceedings. They join the group in the chair exercises they start the session with, before warming up their voices too with a selection of numbers from the musicals Oklahoma! and Oliver!, as well as some traditional songs from the local area. Joe is so caught up in the atmosphere that he obliges requests for a solo performance, treating the group to a lovely version of Any Dream Will Do from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat a show he starred in several times.

“Being here today has been a really wonderful thing,” says Joe after the class. “As someone with a huge passion for music, in my life and my job, it’s always great to see how music affects people how it lifts them and how their personalities come out. And then there's the way in which the music and lyrics help people to remember things. The people in this group may have everyday struggles with their memories, but here in this room you can see the impact unfolding and it's magical. When people were singing, you could see them being taken back to when they first heard those songs. Witnessing people reconnecting with their spark like that is emotional.”

Vital volunteers

Groups like Singalong Memories are a team effort to put together - requiring volunteers to help with setting up, handing out lyric sheets, looking after attendees and sorting food and drinks.

Among them is Alan, who’s been volunteering for 60 years - 13 of them with Age UK North Tyneside. He volunteers both with Singalong Memories and as a telephone friend for older people in the community.

Singer Joe McElderry say between an older man and woman
Volunteer Alan, Joe and Hilda share a joke
Singer Joe McElderry say between an older man and woman
Volunteer Alan, Joe and Hilda share a joke

“It's the sense of satisfaction I get that’s kept me volunteering for so many years,” says Alan of this impressive feat. “It's very special to see people benefiting from the work done by the organisations I’ve worked with, including Age UK North Tyneside. It gives me a focus on life, setting my mind each day on doing what I can, the best I can. Working as part of a team is also enormously rewarding - pulling together and relying on one another to provide services that support older people.

“I’m very keen on Singalong Memories, because it helps people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Alan continues. “It’s marvellous how people can come along to this group, with their wives and husbands and support workers, and get a sense of relief. It’s a group that flourishes. We’re all very friendly.”

Joe's grandmother, Hilda, certainly agrees. “I've had a lovely time today,” she smiles. “It's good to see so much important work being done to benefit older people.”


Pics: Katielee Arrowsmith/PinPep

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Last updated: Jun 27 2024

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