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Understanding Dementia 2019

How music and singing can support people with dementia

Photo credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus / RawPixel

Heather Edwards

Originator and Lead, Music Mirrors

Dementia affects not just an individual but the whole network of family and others involved in caring. There is currently no cure, and post-diagnostic support can be patchy.

However, there are effective and inexpensive ways for those living and coping with the condition to focus on existing abilities that can bring them joy and relief amid the challenges of daily life.

Being with others who understand how things are – peer support – is a great resource. It can work at its best when people meet with a purpose to do something they enjoy, as well as to share experiences.

Two successful shoestring initiatives provide examples of how non-pharmacological, low-cost interventions can make a positive difference to life.

The joyful anarchy and release of singing makes everyone feel better.

Non-pharmaceutical support

Singing is good for anyone at any age and, happily, dementia does not affect the vocal cords.

In 1588, English composer, William Byrd said, Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing’ – today, that still holds true. The feel-good cognitive, physical, social and emotional benefits of singing have been widely researched and proven. Now, the many fine and enthusiastic singers living with dementia just need more chances to carry on doing what they love, and to sing the socks off the rest of us…

Come Singing, a tiny, voluntary group, began in 2012, running free, therapeutic singing and music sessions for people at all stages of memory loss. Between 40 and 50 singers regularly attend the larger community sessions.

The group provides services as free bolt-ons to existing organisations and facilities like day centres, hospitals, care homes and libraries. It can now offer around 20 sessions a month in and around Norwich.

Singing exercises can exercise the brain

But these are far more than just singalongs. Scattered amid songs are warm-ups and cognitive tricks to tease the brain into action. It feels simply fun, but there is an underlying therapeutic agenda.

Coming to the groups builds strong networks of friendship and support, and the joyful anarchy and release of singing makes everyone feel better.

Come Singing runs on a shoestring. Generous grants from Norfolk Community Foundation and legacies have funded songbooks, keyboards and the making of two CDs, and Norfolk Family Carers kindly paid room hire for a monthly community session.

Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.William Byrd, English composer (1588)

Sound taps into parts of the brain that survive even in late dementia

Music Mirrors grew from Come Singing in seeing how sounds or music that have been important in someone’s life continue to have meaning, even when communication is difficult.

Experiencing sound involves not just hearing, but also sight, touch and movement. The parts of the brain processing these survive relatively undamaged late into dementia, so, hearing familiar sounds can often bring feelings and memories to life as vividly as ever.

The idea of a ‘music mirror’ is very simple: write down a few clips of a person’s life story and embed sounds or music to trigger memories and associations.

Helping someone to compile a music mirror supports and values them as an individual, and equips them with a tool for the future.

Written as an email, with links to Youtube or similar, a music mirror can be used via smartphone or tablet to call up comforting associations and memories at times of change or anxiety.

Familiar words and turns of phrase can help someone to connect to their own identity and build bridges of understanding with those around them. Even the information on paper, without live music, is useful. Music mirrors cost nothing and need no personalised equipment. In this way they are quite distinct from playlists of favourite music for entertainment or solitary listening.

In 2017, Music Mirrors were shortlisted for the Guardian Innovation in Mental Health Services in Advancing Healthcare Awards. They are now used in care homes, day centres, NHS hospitals and in family homes.

A four-year intervention study is currently running at Zurich University

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