On song: Choir helps older people in rurual communities to connect

On song: Choir helps older people in rurual communities to connect
Mairead Hanlon of Listowel, Co Kerry. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Being a member of a singing society has important social benefits, particularly for those living in rural areas, activities coordinator Mairead Hanlon tells Rowena Walsh.

IN a single November night, the choir set up by Mairead Hanlon raised almost €12,000 for the proposed new Alzheimer’s daycare centre in north Kerry. 

The achievement was all the more impressive considering the choir had only been established six months earlier.

In May 2018, Mairead was in the middle of a Creative Exchanges course, a joint initiative between the HSE and Age & Opportunity. She had just taken up a new role as activities coordinator for older people at Ard Chúram Day Care Centre in Listowel and felt that the course would give her a new insight into different activities she could do.

Mairead already had experience running an active retirement group for the past 12 years with her husband in Asdee village. 

Although she was only in her late 30s when the group started, she had recognised the need for it in the community.

Her job as activities coordinator involves meeting a variety of older persons groups and doing activities with them, so the Creative Exchanges course was a perfect fit for her.

She was particularly inspired by its emphasis on singing, dancing and music. “It’s good for everyone’s overall wellbeing, both mental and physical,” she says. 

If you’re moving to music, even if you can’t dance, it’s so good for you. You’re exercising in a fun way.

It got her thinking about setting up a choir. She advertised locally through leaflets and posters, and 48 people showed up to sing one day in May 2018 at the community centre in Listowel. Today, there are 112 registered members.

“We meet every Monday,” says Mairead. 

“We took a break for the summer but we’ll be back on August 26. We have a wonderful choir director — Mary Culloty O’Sullivan from Killarney who has an amazing soprano voice and who trained under Dr Veronica Dunne.”

For Mairead, the key benefit of the choir is social. 

“There’s a lot of rural isolation in north Kerry and I’m sure for a lot of the country as well, outside of the big towns and cities. There’s a growing population of elderly people living on their own.”

She is enthusiastic about the choir’s feel-good factor. 

Mairead Hanlon of Listowel, Co Kerry. Picture: Domnick Walsh
Mairead Hanlon of Listowel, Co Kerry. Picture: Domnick Walsh

“When you’re singing, you forgot all your troubles and your worries. You just sing and you enjoy it. There’s a smile on everybody’s face when they’re going home.

“The word has spread all over Kerry about this choir because it’s just been a phenomenal success.”

After the success of their November concert, the members of the choir decided to have a classical evening. They contacted organisers of Listowel’s Writers’ Week and performed on May 10 during the festival. 

They invited Fr Ray Kelly, who had been on Britain’s Got Talent, and sang to an audience of more than 550 people. It was another great success. That same night the members launched their EP.

Like the concert proceeds, all the money from EPs is going to help the Alzheimer’s Day Care Centre.

It’s very satisfying and worthwhile to see the success of the choir,” says Mairead, “But even more fulfilling is to see people enjoying it so much.

The Creative Exchanges course involved seven full days over two months and Mairead, who recently attended her graduation ceremony, highly recommends it.

The course, which also included art, poetry and photography elements, gave her lots of ideas for the various groups she works with.

One particularly inspiring workshop was on reminiscence, and she is now writing a book on the stories she’s heard. 

There’s such an invaluable wealth of knowledge from the groups that she visits, she says. “You could listen to them all day as they have so much to say.”

Mairead is passionate about the benefits of the Creative Exchanges course and believes if people stay active their brains are stimulated and remain living in their own homes for longer.

“It’s amazing to make such a difference to people’s lives. We have so much fun. They love to talk and recall their stories from childhood.”

Creative Exchanges is a QQI accredited course for anyone leading creative activities with older people. The next course will take place at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Kilmainham, Dublin 8, starting on September 11. For details see: https://age andopportunity.ie/engage/

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