Debra Skeen is a professional singer who trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Having performed for over thirty years and incorporated private teaching since the late 90s, in 2014, Debra was invited into a care home to sing for the residents which began her journey towards the discovery of the power of music as therapy. She soon became a Dementia Friend (DF) and then a Dementia Friends Champion. Debra became involved with the local Singing for the Brain sessions run by The Alzheimer’s Society and has now devised her own unique way of incorporating Music for the Brain. Debra’s Sussex-wide sessions are based on interactive singing incorporating a little movement, deep breathing and, where appropriate, learning new songs and quizzing which help create synapses in the brain.
What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
Shower to wake up! Check emails whilst having breakfast.
What’s Your Journey to work?
By car as I travel to venues between Worthing and Hastings and up to Horsham incorporating all areas within that semi-circle.
What does a ‘usual’ day involve?
There is no ‘usual day’. I could be teaching singing – EVERYONE CAN SING and improve on what they already have – or clarinet (for beginners – I started life as a clarinettist) ) or ukulele from my studio at home 1-2-1 or I could be singing in a care home or day care centre or I could be singing at a funeral, wedding, family celebration, bar/bat mitzvah …. Or I could be networking to spread the word – I do a lot of networking.
How do you prepare for your sessions?
Each month, the sessions for the Music for the Brain are based on a different theme. It takes up to four hours to devise a one-hour programme and arrange the music for me to sing with ukulele accompaniment and organise the song sheets so the residents can join in.
What does a session entail?
There’s always an introductory sing-a-long song and then the themed songs incorporating quizzing as we go (e.g. Can you remember who sang this/what this is from, etc.) Some movement, usually upper body as most clients are seated and cannot move as much as they might like to, and always learning something new. There is always a little story-telling and sometimes I will just accompany them singing. All my sessions are acoustic.
Why do you do what you do?
I love music. It’s what I trained for. I love to sing with and for people and see the difference it makes in people’s lives even if only for a short time. I love the variation within my musical life and the freedom of being my own boss. Also, I can’t do anything else!
Do you have any specific success stories?
Seeing people with dementia who may not appear to have much connection with their surroundings or the people around them becoming aware and getting obvious enjoyment out of our sessions is incredible – like switching people back on. The animation may not last and they may have forgotten I was even there shortly afterwards, but the feeling of happiness can stay with them giving them a sense of wellbeing for longer.
What made you first want to become a Dementia Friends Champion?
I did some work as an Activities Co-ordinator in a care home in Buckinghamshire before I moved to Sussex in 2017 and a lady came and delivered a Dementia Friends session to the staff. It was incredibly informative and it awoke something in me which made me want to find out more. Eventually I wanted to become a Champion to be able to deliver the same sessions to help make my community more aware and less fearful. They are free, one-hour long sessions. If anyone would like to sign up for a session, please contact me for more information via email: email@example.com
In one word, how does your work make you feel?
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing, what would you be and why?
So many things. Not enough lifetimes! I always wanted to be an astronaut and I hope, in a future life maybe, that I am gifted with a scientific mind to enable me to get there! The nearest I can get to weightlessness on our planet is by scuba diving. If I win the Lottery I will be signing up for the Virgin Galactic Space flight!
Debra’s website details are: www.musicforthebrain.co.uk
If you’d like to find out more about caring for an elderly parent or relative in Sussex, please visit www.agespace.org/local/sussex or to contact Age Space Sussex, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01273 608544.