Chester students change their tune about dementia

A music-video project helps students see seniors as fellow performers and creative partners

by Jill Chappell

Differences between seniors and youth often create a generational divide but those distinctions have brought together a group of Nova Scotian students with seniors from Chester’s Shoreham Village long-term care facility.

“We got together after school and we wrote some ideas to ask the seniors. For example, what were your chores?” explains 13-year-old Ruah Hoeg. “We asked the seniors a bunch of questions and used all of the information and turned it into a song.”

The song, “Back Then,” was part of a project funded by the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia Community Grant program. It struck a chord with president and CEO Starr Cunningham.

“Music is a powerful tool for our mental health and well-being,” says Cunningham. “We are so proud to invest in projects like this that eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness. The beauty of this project is that it has not only touched the lives of those involved, but it has the ability to change the way people think around the globe.”

“Back Then” aims to eliminate the stigma associated with aging and dementia through music and video production. Speakers and singers range in age from 5–95 including more than a dozen Chester-area youth and 20 seniors, some with varying stages of dementia.

“One woman came in with this blank look on her face and they said she probably won’t sing, she can hardly even speak, but she’ll enjoy the music,” says producer Dawn Harwood-Jones. “And before we started playing, all of a sudden we hear this beautiful soprano voice going, ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…’”

Jim Henman and Laura Smith doing a sound check.

That magical moment led to many more throughout the course of the project. With the help of singer-songwriter Laura Smith and Juno Hall-of-Famer Jim Henman, the group fine-tuned their work. The finished product is a catchy tune comparing the world today with life when the residents were the age of the young people involved.

“It was really interesting to learn what their lives were like back then,” says Ruah. “They were so sociable and interactive. They used to get together every day and have fun groups and play games. I feel like that doesn’t happen as much today as it used to.”

Once the song was complete, a date was set for a music video shoot. Veteran Land and Sea videographer Robert Guertin offered to help film the project. The highly professional setting made for a lot of excitement and instilled a great amount of pride.

“If you want to tell someone they’re important, you bring in a camera that weighs 25 pounds and big lights,” says Harwood-Jones. “Everyone had a ball. There’s no question that these people loved being interviewed and loved the whole process.”

The project provided the group with much more than music therapy and camaraderie. The positive, collaborative environment improved the symptoms of seniors living with dementia by reducing loneliness and depression. It also changed how the students interacted with their elders.

Jim Henman and Laura Smith doing a sound check.
Ruah Hoeg and “Back Then” cast practise whistling.

“The kids learned respect,” says Harwood-Jones. “They learned how to speak up. They learned that seniors are valid human beings with very rich lives who have contributed to society in a big way.” Those contributions have left a lasting impression on the young people involved. Especially when it comes to how they perceive seniors living with dementia.

“I was surprised by the fact that they still had most of their memories and how exciting they were,” says Ruah. “I originally thought that before our generation it was so boring because they didn’t have the internet and stuff. I think everybody should know how sociable and amazing seniors are.” An incredible change in tune for participants both young and old that has truly changed the way people think about mental illness.

The Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia is thrilled to be funding another project by the Chester Municipal Heritage Society. Youth and Seniors will work together to create an online presence comparing life then to life now. To learn more about “Back Then” and see the video, visit mentalhealthns.ca/impact-stories/back-then.

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