Enriching lives, one song at a time

A special choir in suburban Melbourne is helping people living with Huntington’s Disease find their voice and enrich their lives, one song at a time.

Run by Calvary Health Care Bethlehem, the Enrich choir brings joy, provides therapeutic and social benefits, and helps enable participants to live their best lives.

There remains no cure for the rare, genetic progressive neurological condition. Children who have a parent with Huntington’s Disease have a 50-50 chance of inheriting the gene.

“My dad had it so I knew I had a 50 per cent chance. I was hoping I didn’t,” said tradie, Darren Gillies.

His father died in 2000 and Darren says it was hard watching him go through it.

An electrician by trade, Darren led an active and adventurous life – travelling, snowboarding, riding motorcycles, even parachuting. He was diagnosed about five years ago and can no longer work or drive.

He found out about the choir through his treatment at Calvary Bethlehem and it has become a big part of his life and something he looks forward to – along with Men’s Shed on Tuesdays and church on Sunday.

“I look forward to all the people, and singing. It’s not that great,” Darren says of his singing. “But I think it must be getting better,” he says with his trademark smile.

Oddly, while some participants can find speech difficult at times, they can sing beautifully. This, says Calvary Bethlehem Senior Music Therapist Eleanor Bajo, is down to the impacts of rhythm and the structure that it gives to the brain.

Music therapists at the specialist sub-acute health facility started the choir several years ago and it continues to flourish, despite challenges posed during the pandemic – including having to initially move to online sessions. The weekly sessions usually start with breathing exercises, can involve body percussion, and always require focus.

“There’s a lot going on in the sessions,” says Eleanor. “There is social connectedness and the comradery within the group. There’s also the impact of the music itself which gives a rush and releases endorphins, which is really great for your health. Then there is the physical functions involved in the singing and engaging the muscles involved.”

Choir member Lizzie would agree.

“It is good for the diaphragm, I need to use my diaphragm properly.”

Lizzie’s mother had Huntington’s Disease.

“I did a gene test when I was 18 because I always wanted to know,” she said.

Lizzie had the gene and several years later, after showing symptoms, was diagnosed as having the disease. It was not long before her wedding to childhood sweetheart Peter, who she met at school. He remains her biggest support.

“It was hard to find out, but I’m a pretty positive person. We had a pretty fun wedding.

“I used to love doing dancing, and having fun. I still have fun.”

Lizzie had heard about the choir, but only started coming along about a year ago.

“Everyone is so friendly, and I like singing. I never really knew many people with Huntington’s, just my sister and me.”

Lizzie is now 31, and while she would like to be able to travel to Europe and maybe have a new home someday, there is one big wish.

“I’m hoping there is a cure. That would be amazing.”

Choir members and Calvary Bethlehem staff shone centre stage recently during filming for a story with Channel 9 Melbourne presenter Jo Hall to raise awareness of Huntington’s Disease. You can watch the story below or at https://youtu.be/5YB4g9Umweg.