A question comes in via Zoom, where this launch in Nottingham’s Confetti X venue is being broadcast from. It’s a journalist from the Daily Express, and she asks ‘what can be done for sufferers..” but the question goes no further, as Vicky McClure cuts in “They are not sufferers!” she corrects the journalist “These are people, they live with dementia…the words we use are really important”. The audience, the majority of whom live with dementia, or with those who do, cheer and applaud. A journalist, sitting watching from her London office, feels suitably chastened. I look at my own notes, and strike out where in my notes have made the same mistake.
Vicky McClure has been passionate about helping those with dementia seeing her gran contract it. A dynamo of a human, she looked around to do something practical and set about assembling a Nottinghamshire dementia choir, using clinically effective music therapy to give those with dementia to find an outlet for their creative impulses. The resultant TV show, Our Dementia Choir With Vicky McClure, was broadcast by the BBC in 2019, and proved an inspiring hit. Do not, however, assume that this is your typical celebrity vehicle; a good cause attached to a name “When I saw the name” she says, pointing at the title “I thought hmmm”. Similarly, her choirmaster, Mark De-Lissier tells us “People asked me what my real job is. It’s this, as long as they want me, I’ll do it”. The second series, on BBC iPlayer now, demonstrates this many times over. Vicky and Mark don’t just turn up to do pieces to camera, they’re there all the time, deeply involved.
The choir themselves relish this: a wide mix of people from all walks of life who share two things: a life with dementia; and an awareness of how therapeutically joyous singing can be.
Yet this isn’t all heart-warming music and connection. There’s a serious message, and that’s how those with dementia are treated by an NHS and care system struggling to survive in repeated real-term budget cuts at a time of real demand (there are currently more than 900,000 people in the UK with some form of dementia, a figure that increases year on year: by 2025 the NHS predicts this figure will top a million). Vicky is seen at a briefing on dementia from the then Health Secretary Sajiv Javid, who tosses out a word salad of half-baked promises, vague time scales and a total lack of mentions to music therapy. Vicky leaves deflated, visibly upset.
The reality of those given a diagnosis of dementia can be bleak. Quite often, they’re left to work out themselves how to access support, provided through a patchwork of charities and suchlike. With horrible irony, they are quite simply all too often forgotten about.
Loneliness is an issue: 120,000 people with dementia live alone. But even those living with a family or friends also often see their social circle shrinking as the condition progresses, exacerbated by the stigma towards those with dementia. In a 2019 survey The Alzheimer’s Society found 40% of the general public said they’d be uncomfortable communicating with someone with dementia.
The Dementia Choir thus serves to give the members connection and a wider social circle (most of the choir are at the launch, and their affection for each other is evident), but also to show that the stigma needs to go: as such, she gets the choir a slot on the mainstage at Nottingham’s Splendour Festival, duetting with pop-firecracker Tom Grennan. “I want to show young people what dementia is” says Vicky. I was lucky enough to watch the performance at the festival in person: 20,000 people moved to dancing, tears and a feeling of utter love towards the choir.
Vicky wants ‘to make Nottingham the first dementia-friendly city’, and if anyone can do that, she can. But after taking the choir to the Nottingham Theatre Royal; Abbey Road Studios and a festival stage, is the next step 10 Downing Street?
“I wouldn’t want to waste these people’s time” she answers, arm sweeping to the choir “If they’re just ignored or given promises that come to nothing. Plus, I think they have some issues in that place right now. But maybe, maybe”. Notts, and I imagine the rest of the UK, will be right behind you Vicky.
Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure is on BBC iPlayer now. To find out more about the choir, and how you can support them, go to ourdementiachoir.com