All-singing, all-dancing lessons on dementia

20th February 2015 at 00:00
A new scheme bringing older people suffering from Alzheimer's into schools is teaching both generations the power of community

Hugh McGill is rock'n'roll dancing with two partners simultaneously. Both are half his size; he twirls the first under his left arm and, with his right hand, jives back and forth with the second.

Nearby, Mr McGill's wife Linda looks on and smiles. "Look at Hugh," she says as he twirls the girls in opposite directions. "He loves dancing. Loves it."

Mr McGill has dementia. Every Tuesday afternoon during term-time, he and his wife are visitors to Bernard Gilpin Primary school in Tyne and Wear.

"We come because he loves music," Mrs McGill says. "He can be down in the dumps, and as soon as we hear the music, he comes alive. I think the mind relates to the music."

The club is part of the Dementia Challenge, a scheme launched by the government to create greater national understanding of the difficulties faced by those with the condition, and to remove the stigma surrounding it. Twenty-two schools across the country were chosen to pioneer shared activities between pupils and dementia sufferers - Bernard Gilpin has been operating the scheme for a year now.

"We once phrased it the `dementia adventure'," says Andrew Bainbridge, headteacher of the school. "We were going out there like Indiana Jones. We didn't know what was out there, but we wanted to go."

The afternoon begins with a lunch of fish and chips. Within minutes, the sharp smell of vinegar fills the air.

"In the North East, there's a huge heritage of fish and chips," Mr Bainbridge says. "It brings people together. The ice is broken, everybody mingles and then conversation starts to flow."

Bernard Gilpin serves a relatively deprived community: in some classes, between 60 and 70 per cent of pupils receive free school meals. The dementia club, therefore, allows children to see themselves as givers of help rather than its recipients.

"It's an opportunity to show off the skills they have, their manners," Mr Bainbridge says. " `Would you like another cup of tea? More vinegar?' My experience is that children are naturally caring and we need to keep endorsing that as a society.

"The kids need to understand that these people are in their community - that they are their community. The essence of that is that the young can help the elderly, and the elderly can help the young."

After lunch, visitors and schoolchildren gather round the piano and music teacher Simon Lee begins to play. "I want to try a round," he says, bringing the lyrics up on a screen for everyone to follow. The round involves hand and leg actions; dementia patients, carers and schoolchildren alike start waving their hands in the air and stamping their feet.

"Music is such an emotional thing," Mr Lee says. "Singing more than any other instrument. It's you, it's part of you that you're presenting to other people. It's just so emotional. And it's really rewarding when you're doing it with other people. It doesn't matter whether it's singing 17th-century polyphony or singing with two-year-olds. Everyone's enthusiastic."

Mr Bainbridge nods in agreement. "It's marvellous, isn't it?" he says. "Some of those kids haven't got grandparents. This is a completely new experience of engaging with people from a completely different generation. It's a real-life history lesson."

When Mr Bainbridge took up his post at Bernard Gilpin, it had been rated as inadequate by Ofsted. He credits the scheme with helping the school to progress to a "good" rating in nine months.

"How do we educate children?" he says. "The people with dementia - you learn so much from them, don't you? And people who care for people with dementia, you learn so much from them. And that's what education is."

United in song

Next on the playlist is Consider Yourself, from Oliver! - "Oh, we know this, don't we?" says Mrs McGill's friend, Sylvia Henry - followed by When You Wish Upon a Star. "That's Linda's favourite," Mrs Henry adds.

"They like the same songs as us," says Abi Broadbent-Siddons. The 11-year-old is a member of the school choir, all of whom have been trained through the Alzheimer's Society's Dementia Friends programme. The school sees the sessions as part of the children's education, as important as classroom lessons. But the choir has plenty of members so the same children are not missing lessons each week.

"At first, we thought we were going to have to act different around them and speak more slowly," Abi continues. "But old people are just the same people as us, but a bit older."

For Fiona Bridle, a teacher at the school and leader of the project, these joint singing sessions are where the real learning takes place. "If someone said to the kids, `You're going to sing and dance with someone with dementia', it would be a fear thing - they'd be scared," she says. "But they're up there, having a laugh and enjoying it. They feel that they're helping. They want to help. They want to be kind, to put things right."

For the people with dementia, too, singing and dancing is helpfully accessible. "You have to realise," Mrs McGill says, "it's no good sitting with people with dementia and giving them a talk."

And, Mr Bainbridge adds, the children learn the difference between patronising their audience and interacting with them. "The children aren't singing at them," he says. "They're singing with them. If you do things to people, you're just firing it at them. You do a show and go. If you do things with people, there's more chance of it happening to greater depth. It just has greater longevity - people enjoy it more."

After the group singalong, members of the school choir stand at the front and perform a show song from their own era: Let It Go. "My soul is spiralling in frozen fractions all around," they sing, possibly because the primary maths curriculum does not cover fractals.

Better than sleeping

"It's lovely," says Peter Reed, a former maths teacher. Now suffering from dementia, he comes to the sessions with his wife. "I'm not used to being surrounded by kids, because I'm retired now. If I wasn't here, I'd be sitting back, doing nothing, going to sleep. So it certainly makes a big difference."

To finish, there is a rousing rendition of We'll Meet Again - a song that, unlike Let It Go, was written to be sung by enthusiastic amateurs. The singing becomes louder and there are fewer silences where the high notes should be.

"My grandparents' music was Vera Lynn and We'll Meet Again and all that routine," Mr Bainbridge says. "But, actually, this generation is from the 1950s. Once upon a time, it was tea dances. Now it's rock'n'roll: Elvis, Buddy Holly. Roy Orbison as well. It kind of reminds me of my childhood in the car."

And then the rock'n'roll dancing begins. "Peter wasn't a dancer until he came here," Mrs McGill says, as Mr Reed stands up and joins the schoolchildren on the dance floor. "Now he's a dancer."

"I'm very badly coordinated, but I make an attempt," he answers, jiving back and forth. "It does cheer me up."

"It's a massive barrier-breaker, isn't it?" Mr Bainbridge says, as Mr McGill twirls Abi under his arm. "All learning requires an amount of risk at times. The more situations we put our children in, the more opportunities they have to realise that there are things they can do."

You've got a friend

The Alzheimer's Society has launched an initiative to help schoolchildren and others in their communities ensure that people with dementia feel included.

The Dementia Friends project includes lesson plans and activities for schools, to help young people understand the needs of those with dementia and how they can help people with the condition.

The charity also trains speakers, who visit schools to talk about what being a Dementia Friend involves.

For a free pack and to find out more about the project, visit

Comic Relief 2015

The Dementia Friends project is funded by the North East and Cumbria Dementia Fund, a partnership between Comic Relief, the Ballinger Charitable Trust and the Northern Rock Foundation.

Red Nose Day will take place on 13 March 2015 and the money raised will be used to help fund similar projects in both the UK and Africa.

To find out more and to order your free Schools Fundraising Resource Pack, visit www.rednoseday.comtes

What else?

Give your pupils a spy-themed mission for Comic Relief.


Raise awareness about the difficulties some children face in getting an education with this Comic Relief poster.


Deliver a Comic Relief assembly to boost student engagement with the charity.


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