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The relationship between music and dementia

There are many different techniques we can use to alleviate the symptoms of dementia which can help ease the challenges faced by someone who is living with the condition, and their family.  The influence of music can work towards ‘unlocking’ memories and reaching parts of the brain which other forms of communication cannot.

Gwenda with her carer Simon

Simon, a carer in the Warwickshire region, understands the importance of using music as a tool to comfort and help bring back treasured memories. He regularly takes a lady he supports, Gwenda, to a café where she interacts with other individuals who have been diagnosed with dementia. It is a place where they can play games, chat, and eat delicious cakes together.

Gwenda (pictured here with Simon) had been a headmistress and would always play the piano during assemblies, regaling the children with hymns and popular songs. While in the café, she continues to entertain the participants with songs she recalls from this time, with them often singing along.

Seeing the effect this activity has on Gwenda, Simon encourages others to try using music within their care. He notes that “she shines when she plays” and enjoys seeing her recalling happy memories.

Using music within dementia care

Gwenda playing the piano

Music can be an incredibly useful tool. It can help to calm someone, change their mood, connect with others and even reduce the feeling of isolation. Playing soothing or familiar music can result in an emotional reaction, which can be explained through the initial development of the brain.

“We know that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else,” explains Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist who later went on to study the connection between music and dementia. “So it’s a case of first in last out when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.”

To start, you could try playing your loved one a song that once meant a lot to them. This could be the music they had their first dance to, a favourite song from their youth, or one that might remind them of a special time.

Make sure you watch their reactions. If the music makes them uncomfortable or agitated, turn it off. It could simply be down to a wrong song choice, so try it again at a later time with another genre of music.

Singing to unlock memories

Nicola is a carer and supervisor in the Warrington and St Helens area and has also had a first-hand experience of the effect music can have on someone who is living with dementia. She says, “Every Wednesday I care for a lady for 11 hours and during that time, I take her to a group called Memory Lane. We sing along to old songs together and this seems to comfort her.”

Nicola shares that while at first the lady would not join in, she soon started to sing with the rest of the group and also played the tambourine in time with many of the songs. Nicola has been able to see other improvements in the lady’s mood and awareness as the group offers vital social stimulation. She adds, “The interaction that happens is amazing!”

Music as a bridge in time

Gwenda playing the piano

Andrew, a live-in carer, has also been using music as a tool for a number of years and has been able to see the impact it can have. Prior to joining Helping Hands, Andrew often held workshops where he invited individuals who had been diagnosed with dementia to come and listen to various songs together. He says, “I was using music in order to connect with people at deeper levels than we can achieve with verbal communication.”

Andrew then brought this experience to his role as a live-in carer. While caring for a gentleman who was living with the effects of dementia, he found that he was able to help him reconnect with his past. “He was always sharing stories about the time in the RAF during WWII, so I researched popular music from this time. This is how I stumbled across Vera Lynn. I quickly created a compilation of her songs which lasted over an hour and played it to him the next time he seemed agitated.”

The impact this had on the gentleman was more than Andrew could have hoped for. “The result was amazing,” he says. “The most interesting part is that he remembered all the lyrics, and he would sing for hours and hours.”

These personal accounts show the beauty of music, the flexibility and familiarity of it. Using it when caring for an individual with dementia can not only help the individual to feel genuinely relaxed and comforted, it can also work towards helping society to learn more about the mind as a whole.

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