ParkinSong choir fights isolation of Parkinson's disease

23 September 2019

For David Boreham, belting out the lyrics to a Kylie Minogue song is a regular Saturday morning at home.

“What I do is, I put Rage on, put the subtitles on, and sing along,” he said.

“I’m a great Kylie fan and I know I’m better for it.”

In December 2005, Mr Boreham was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive, chronic neurological condition that affects movement and speech.

“Parkinson’s is different for every person. I went from being a right-handed person, to basically having my right arm become useless,” he said.

“Swallowing, dexterity issues — I’m quite heavily medicated, but I can still function.”

For a lot of ‘Parkos’, a term used to describe individuals with the diagnosis, the disease can reduce the loudness of their voice, making it difficult for them to be understood.

That is where Kylie comes in.

Mr Boreham is a proud member of ParkinSong, a singing group for people with Parkinson’s.

David Boreham looking at the camera.David Boreham looking at the camera.
David Boreham was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005.(ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham)

Once a week, the group of seniors get together in a town hall in Turramurra, on Sydney’s upper north shore, to socialise, have morning tea and sing.

“The music and the singing is just wonderful,” said choir member Chris Davis, a retired engineer.

Since joining the choir, Mr Davis has witnessed a transformation in himself.

“It’s been a marvellous change for me from being a bit isolated to have this supportive group around,” he said.

Close up photo of three singersClose up photo of three singers
Research suggests singing improves both mental health and speech issues for those with Parkinson’s.(ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham)

Science proving the benefit of song

The benefits the group is experiencing are backed by scientific research.

“This ParkinSong program is the first one to actually have some reasonable evidence behind it that it does seem to be having an impact on the speech production,” University of Sydney Professor of Speech Motor Control Kirrie Ballard said.

Professor Ballard said there were two reasons being in a choir appeared to have such a positive impact on those with the degenerative condition.

“Individuals with communication problems often get every isolated because they’re hard to talk to, [and] they withdraw from society, so it’s a way to bring them back together in a group.

“The second reason — and this is specific to Parkinson’s — if it’s done in the right way, [choirs] can help them practice the very speech behaviours they need to practice, making their speech a lot louder and a lot more clear so they can become more intelligible.”

Adrienne IrvingAdrienne Irving
Adrienne Irving’s song I’m Still Me is currently being performed by ParkinSong.(ABC Radio Sydney: Harriet Tatham)

Choir member Adrienne Irving has also seen noticeable benefit.

“The benefits of being in Parkinson’s choir is that it helps them with their voice, the delay in their voice,” she said.

As the group’s pianist, Ms Irving has also enjoyed watching songs she has written being performed by the group.

“I’ve been singing with ParkinSong for more than a year now and I was lucky enough to get to have my song performed,” she said.

“The song is called I’m Still Me and it’s about a person who has Parkinson’s, or something similar, and basically saying ‘I’m still the person I was before the diagnosis and I’ll still be the person afterwards’.”

ParkinSong meets at the Turramurra Senior’s Centre, 1 Gilroy Road, at 10am to 11:30am each Thursday.

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