Carers get new lease of life through choir project

The Strong Women Choir strike up a tune in Newington Day Centre, led by Anne McCambridgeThe Strong Women Choir strike up a tune in Newington Day Centre, led by Anne McCambridge
The Strong Women Choir strike up a tune in Newington Day Centre, led by Anne McCambridge | Other 3rd Party
GRAEME COUSINS finds out about a music project that has given carers and renewed energy to look after loved ones

The power of song has helped to give carers a new lease of life as they enjoy a few hours respite courtesy of a unique music project.

Marie Shearan – no relation to Ed she points out – is one of those carers whose sole devotion is to a loved one, in Marie’s case her husband Bernard.

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The 69-year-old attends Newington Day Centre in north Belfast once a week where she sings her heart out as part of a choir of novices while her husband is in safe hands in the room nextdoor.

Marie Shearan perfecting her notesMarie Shearan perfecting her notes
Marie Shearan perfecting her notes | Other 3rd Party

The Carers’ Music Fund project in the day centre is facilitated by musicians from the Oh Yeah music centre in Belfast, who provide sessions every Tuesday for a group of women with caring responsibilities for loved ones, many of them living with dementia.

Marie said: “The lovely thing is when I go down to the club I get my youth back. I feel I am somebody again. When you come out of work you can feel like a nobody sometimes.”

Marie gave up work in the Mater Hospital two years ago to look after her husband: “My husband had diabetes before I met him but over the years that got progressively worse. He would have kidney trouble as well and a missing heartbeat. He has a lot of difficulty getting around.

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“They wanted to keep me on in work until I was 70 but I thought I would come out of work and spend some time with Bernard because what’s the use in working your life away. I did it out of love for my husband.”

Paul Kane and Anne McCambridge lead the singersPaul Kane and Anne McCambridge lead the singers
Paul Kane and Anne McCambridge lead the singers | Other 3rd Party

Bernard has been attending Newington three days a week for a number of years, while the project which has seen the formation of a carers’ choir has been running for the past 12 weeks.

This week the choir will be in Half Bap studios in Belfast to record the fruition of their labour of love, a song they’ve called ‘Hey Girl’.

Marie said: “All of our ideas came into the song, everybody was given a chance to be included. I’ve never seen a group bond as well. The emotional side of people came out, that happens with music.”

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Marie has had a love of music all her life: “I had a very active life when I was younger, I loved dancing and I loved music. I remember going to see all the showbands in the Orpheus (former dance hall in York Street).

“My daddy played the piano and accordion, there was always music in the home.”

Marie’s first job was on the Shankill Road: “In those days before (the Troubles) you could go all over the place, from the Falls into the Shankill.

“I had that job for 32 years, then I went into the Mater Hospital. I worked there until I was 68.

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“I got up one day at the antenatal clinic and I couldn’t walk. My knees had gone. I had to be taken out in a wheelchair.

“I’m a strong minded person, I kept myself going. I was able to pull myself together and keep going.”

Some people may have a vision of a carer as a younger, fitter, healthier relative, but that’s often not the case.

Marie, who has been on a waiting list for two years for a knee operation, was in her sixties when she assumed the role of carer for her husband. It was a role she was accustomed to – in her fifties she began helping her mother look after her father after he suffered two strokes.

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When Bernard got a place at Newington Day Centre Marie was pleased to learn that the centre wasn’t just focused on the people being cared for: “Margaret (McCrudden, who runs the centre) was bringing carers for days out. I was getting days out with the club, wee dances once a month, or every three months. It gave me renewed strength to look after Bernard.

“I was so grateful. It’s hard working in a hospital in a caring role and then coming home to another caring role.”

She added: “Margaret encourages everybody to have a bit of fun. She’s giving them new lease of life.

“She’s keeping people out of nursing homes, she’s giving people with strokes, people with dementia something to live for, to be part of a bigger community, not become a vegetable just sitting there and that’s when depression sets in.

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“Bernard goes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. I only go on the Tuesday but I’m a new girl on the Wednesday.”

She told the story of a singer she knew called Tony who lost his voice after having a stroke and the wonder Margaret worked with him: “For a man who’s a professional singer losing your voice is a big thing. His wife didn’t know how she’d get round it.

“She heard about Margaret went down to see her. Margaret got them into the club (at Newington). A sing-song started and Tony started coming round. There was a woman who couldn’t sing the last line of a song and Tony sung it. It was an amazing moment.

“I’m in awe of how ordinary people like Margaret can bring something out in people that others couldn’t.”

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Paul Kane has been music and older peoples manager at the Oh Yeah Centre for around eight years.

He said: “Our work with older people began more generally. We worked on some projects about reminiscence, we looked at the punk era.

“We had a variety of other projects where we were trying to develop people’s awareness of their own musical ability.

“We realised that some of the people in the groups we were working with had dementia.

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“We realised that those people were the most marginalised and didn’t get the opportunity to do arts the way other people would have done.

“A lot of the focus has been on addressing that. We’ve worked with a range of projects, we’ve been working with Newington for the past four years.”

Paul said some of the musical link ups they did involved recreating album covers by the likes of Doris Day and Patsy Cline and to celebrate the day centre’s 40th anniversary they put together a choir of carers and their loved ones to record Teenage Kicks, a song which was also 40 years old.

Paul, who as well as being a musician also has experience as a carer for his disabled brother, co-ordinates the sessions at Newington along with Anne McCambridge.

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He said: “As a musician I provide live music, but also talk about the mechanics of music, looking at the idea of why a song works, what’s good about it, why it moves you, and hopefully that will stimulate you to do your own things.

“The first month was very much about sharing our stories and getting to know each other. We talked about dance halls, not being allowed to go out at night, wearing a dress that was too short, going out with the right boy or the wrong boy.

“Then we had the idea of working with the ladies to form a choir. Within 20 minutes Anne had these women singing three-chord harmonies. When you do that for the first time and you know it’s you doing that, the smiles on people’s faces and mine as well was incredible.

“They called themselves the Strong Women Choir. We shared Christmas with their loved ones through song.”