It's a Wednesday morning, and two dozen Pioneer Manor residents are gathered in an activity room, music books in hand, voices raised in song.
The cheerful strains of tunes such as “We'll Meet Again,” “That's Amore,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Wonderful World” and “Can't Help Falling in Love” echo through the halls of Sudbury's largest long-term care facility.
This is The Pioneers Choir, a musical group made up of Pioneer Manor residents that's been running since 2013.
The group, whose members range in age from 31 to 96 years old, holds concerts twice a year and even put out its own CD in 2015.
One of the members is 66-year-old Maria Aprea, who's also the president of Pioneer Manor's resident council. Aprea, who lives with MS, uses a wheelchair and only has one functional hand.
But she can still sing. For years, she belonged to a church choir. Now she sings with The Pioneers.
“Singing comes from the heart,” said Aprea, who memorizes the songs. That's quite a feat, given The Pioneers have 39 songs in their repertoire.
The choir's origins are in a community wellness project called “When I Sing” undertaken in 2013 by local barbershop chorus Nickel City Sound encouraging community groups with no musical experience to sing.
Kim Pelkman, Pioneer Manor's manager of therapeutic services, thought participating a great idea, and 18 residents of the nursing home took part on the When I Sing Festival in April 2014.
Local musician Joanne Polack (also known as JoPo), who for her day job is a Pioneer Manor activity worker, was involved in coaching the residents for the festival along with the Nickel City Sound.
After the festival, Pelkman asked JoPo to keep the choir going, and that's just what she's done for five years.
“I just believe that it gives them hope, something to look forward to,” said JoPo, who said she lost her grandparents as a youngster, and now feels like she's gained many grandmas and grandpas.
“Some residents, in the morning, they're not feeling great, and then we sort of encourage them to come on out, just try doing choir. By the second or third song in, they're having a blast. They're uplifted.”
To participate in The Pioneers, residents must be cognitively aware enough to read and sing lyrics, and must attend practice every Wednesday.
JoPo also performs every month in Pioneer Manor's dementia wing. Music makes an “unbelievable difference” in their behaviour, she said.
“You should see them,” said JoPo, who also leads outings to activities such as the movies, restaurants and Sudbury Wolves games for the long-term care home's young adult group as part of her job.
“They get up, they're dancing, they're having a blast. They have different behaviours in a positive way. It's just unreal.”
The choir makes an “immeasurable” impact on the residents' lives, said Pioneer Manor director Aaron Archibald.
Some may have been in a choir in their earlier lives, and they're able to continue that interest, he said.
“It allows our residents to express themselves and enjoy time with others,” Archibald said. “There's a lot of research that music alone helps pull our residents out of maybe being quiet or also limits a responsive behaviour.
“When you have almost 70 per cent of our residents that have some form of dementia, music really allows them to express themselves where they may not be able to express themselves otherwise.”
As for JoPo, Archibald said it's evident “this is not just a job for her, this is her calling.”
The choir is directed by Pioneer Manor resident Ginette Bujold, who said she comes from a musical family — her mother sang, and her sister played piano.
“I've always loved music,” said 56-year-old Bujold, who wields a conducting baton during practice as JoPo plays guitar.
She said there's not much for Pioneer Manor residents in her age group to do, but she enjoys the choir. “It gives me something to do and something to look forward to,” Bujold said. “We have a great time here.”
If you'd like to catch The Pioneers Choir in action, the group's Mother's Day concert takes place Wednesday, May 8 at 1:30 p.m. The performance is free, and is open to the general public.
Watch JoPo and The Pioneers Choir performance in the video below.