When members of Island Senior Resources’ Parkinson’s Support Group first learned about the health benefits music can have on those living with the disease, they wanted to inject tunes into their routine.
But when a vocal coach was hired and attempted to focus on the quality of their singing, things simply didn’t pan out. The singers didn’t care if they were out of key. They just wanted to exercise their pipes.
Group member Ed Wootten started thinking about informal ways to sing together. Then it hit him — what about karaoke?
“WE WANTED something that just let us do the singing,” Wootten said. “I always thought karaoke was something for the bar after a few drinks. It turns out this is all we needed here.”
The Parkinson’s sing-a-long sessions are held from 2:30-3:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the senior center in Bayview. Organized by Mel Watson, who runs the senior center’s Parkinson’s Support Group and the Time Together adult day program, the classes are intentionally informal.
Watson and the attendees grab a chair in front of the TV and select the song of their choosing, with accompanying words to sing along to.
As the song begins, participants sing in unison, focusing on volume more than anything else. That’s what really matters for people living with the neurodegenerative disease.
CLASSES COST $10 per person. Participants can bring caregivers and families for no additional cost.
Working the vocal chords combats some of the neuron degeneration that comes with the disease. It’s a common side effect for people with Parkinson’s to have a shrinking voice, which can become softer over time as neurons slowly die off. It can lead to some Parkinson’s patients being difficult to understand.
This was all too familiar for group member Scott Martin until he became the sing-a-long group’s de facto bass and baritone.
“I have a naturally deep voice, so it relaxes really easily when I talk,” Martin said. “I didn’t give it the volume people need to hear. After singing every now and then, I automatically give it more volume.”
“Being able to keep up your voice so other people can understand what you’re saying makes an impact in all facets of your life.”
AS IS the case with music in general, singing has numerous other health benefits on the brain. Constantly engaging in activities is a good way to combat the die-off of neurons, Watson said, and can also bring a rhythm into their lives that can facilitate better body movement.
It also keeps the brain active, which can fight the loss of neurons.
It’s a situation where if you don’t use it, you can lose it, Watson says.
“There’s a lot of research on both Parkinson’s and dementia that shows health is improved with singing and music,” group member John Raabe said. “It helps people hang onto their neurons better.”
There’s also a social aspect to the classes that group members say is invaluable. They’ve become good friends who “are all in this together,” according to Martin.
PARKINSON’S CAN often lead to social isolation, Watson said, as people living with the disease can become distraught with their inability to do things they used to do. With these sing-a-long sessions, group members get out of the house in a platform where they can relate to others going through a similar situation.
Watson says their situations can be difficult for people without the disease to understand. The karaoke sessions can provide that outlet.
“It’s a group that’s really active in trying to prolong their quality of life,” Watson said. “There’s a well-known path for people with Parkinson’s, and it’s not a pretty one.
“But I really believe in the power of music, and I can see that play out here every week.”