One of the first blogs I ever wrote on D4Dementia, back in May 2012, was about music for people with dementia. It charted my dad’s love of music, how it became a vital communication tool in the latter years of dad’s dementia, and how I’d been so inspired by the effect music had on my dad that I trained to become a professional singer and completed 35 gigs in care homes.
I guess back when I was doing those gigs, I was effectively part of what a recently launched report on dementia and music calls “a multitude of different individuals and organisations” delivering live music in care homes. The patchwork picture painted by that phrase is very apt given the findings of the aforementioned report - from the Commission on Dementia and Music set up by the International Longevity Centre and supported by The Utley Foundation - that music for people with dementia is, “Defined by sporadic provision which is currently delivered only to the few.”
But why does that matter? Evidence has emerged over the last few years that shows a multitude of benefits associated with music for people with dementia, including:
- A positive effect on the brain by potentially helping with the recall of information
- Minimising distressing symptoms
- Tacking anxiety and depression
- Retaining speech and language
- Enhancing quality of life (through social interaction, improved wellbeing and decreased stress hormones)
- Having a positive impact on the person’s relatives, friends and care workers when they join the person in music-based activity
- Minimising anxiety and discomfort in end-of-life care
I recognise so many of these benefits from my personal experiences. Music gave my dad so much joy, satisfaction and pride. He would sing his favourite songs from beginning to end, word perfect and with precise rhythm and timing. Most tellingly of all, as I recounted in my 2014 Huffington Post blog 'The Power of Music Therapy', when dad could no longer hold a conversation, he could still sing a song.
For us as a family, singing dad’s favourite songs with him or humming or tapping out a treasured melody gave us a priceless connection with him. It was something we could all join in with (once I’d printed lyric sheets for those of us less well-versed with the songs!), smiling, laughing and sometimes shedding a tear together so bound up were we with the emotions of the music.
Indeed, it was the amazing effect music had on my dad during his years with dementia that contributed to the inspiration I had to begin D4Dementia. I wanted to share some of the positive aspects of my dad’s life, and music is right up there on the positive list. In the nearly 6 years since my dad died, I’ve urged everyone I’ve met who’s involved in dementia care and support to give music a try, and it has undoubtedly become easier to do that.
Initiatives like Playlist for Life have come to the fore, and with internet access improving yearly, being able to utilise digital music archives, watch music performances on YouTube, or obtain lyrics to support communal singing of favourite songs has made music more accessible than ever before.
It is extremely sad then that the Commission on Dementia and Music concluded that:
There is SO much more that needs to be done to support people who are newly diagnosed with dementia, all the way through to people being supported in end-of-life care, to access the musical intervention that is right for them. It could be anything from informally listening to CD’s or the radio, to playing an instrument, formalised music therapy sessions, live music performances designed for people with dementia, or groups like Alzheimer's Society's 'Singing for the Brain'.
The report gives a list of recommendations which provide all of us with a focus for raising awareness of the benefits of music for people with dementia, or becoming actively involved in its provision. Indeed, friend and fellow writer, Pippa Kelly, has already blogged about a fantastic idea from soprano Lesley Garrett for the BBC to reintroduce ‘Singing Together’, a programme that once brought young people together around their radios and could now do the same for older people.
I for one wholeheartedly support this idea and hope it is just the start of many more innovative musical initiatives, simply because, as the report says:
“A life without music is unimaginable for many and yet for some people with dementia, opportunities to access music can be few and far between.”
Let’s all be part of changing this current reality so that no one who could benefit from a song or dance in their life is left without it.
You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886