A positive note: music and dementia


A positive note: music and dementia

By Andrea Childs

January 20, 2020

Music has an incredible power to help those living with dementia to connect with others. We spoke to the Programme Director of the Music for Dementia 2020 campaign to find out more

‘My dad is known as “Mr Bring Me Sunshine”, as that’s the song he loves to sing,’ says Jane, our Nourish founder. ‘He always loved music but as his frontotemporal lobe dementia has progressed, it’s become more important to him than ever. It’s also a way for us to connect, whether it’s me playing the piano for him or just singing alongside him. So it’s from experience that I realise the incredible impact that music can have on the lives of those living with dementia and those that care for them. In my practice, I've also found that music can help calm a person living with dementia to feel calmer, and that can help them feel in a better state to sit and eat, so they get the nourishment they need, too.’

We spoke with Grace Meadows, music therapist and Programme Director of the Music for Dementia 2020 programme, about the campaign’s goal to make music a reality for everyone living with dementia.

Tell us about Music for Dementia 2020 and why it was launched.
There’s a dementia crisis in the UK; it’s estimated that a million people will be living with the condition by 2021. So much needs to be done but there is one thing in front of us that’s proven to improve the lives of those with a diagnosis of dementia – music – and it’s not being realised to its full potential. Music for Dementia 2020 is a national campaign to make music available to everyone living with dementia, whether that’s through music activities, in care homes, enjoying performances, making music or simply being able to listen to favourite songs on a personalised playlist. We believe that music isn’t a nicety; it’s a necessity for people living with dementia and they need access to it now.

What is it about music that connects so powerfully with people living with dementia?
Music enables us to live in the here and now; it can help unlock memories and bring them into the present. Dementia can appear to strip away someone’s personality but somehow music resonates and enables communication. That’s so important for the person living with dementia but also for those that love and care for them; it enables them to connect, and it’s connections that sustain us in a difficult situation. When we’re looking after someone, the urgent often overtakes the important. Bringing music into the relationship helps to improve quality of the contact and the time you have with someone.

You’re encouraging people to create playlists of music; tell us about that.
Not everyone can play an instrument or feels confident about singing, but everyone can create a playlist – a collection of songs that are loved and have meaning to someone – whether that’s via a music streaming service or simply going through a record collection together. A personalised playlist can help someone express their identity and history through the songs and music they love, and be a source of joy and comfort. It allows you to tap into who they are, their likes and dislikes, and their memories. It’s been found that people most remember the songs they heard between the ages of 10 and 30, so that’s a good place to start. If someone loves American jazz or rock, then they should be able to listen to it!

'One man got in touch with the campaign after making a playlist with his father. It started by choosing songs and by the end, his father was clapping and singing along, communicating in a way he hadn’t for a long time. It was an incredible experience for them.'

You can read the campaign’s tips for creating a playlist here.

What are the wellbeing benefits of music?
Research has proven that when music is used appropriately and sensitively, it can reduce experience of anxiety and agitation in people living with dementia. Individuals feel less frightened and more secure, settled and content. There are also benefits around reducing social isolation, whether that’s singing in a dementia choir, joining in music-making activities, or going to dances or live music performances. In care homes where music is used positively the atmosphere is so different; music enlivens and enriches the lives of people who live and work there.

'I learnt about a woman in a care setting who was felt to have no capacity for independent action. They had an interactive music session and the woman got out of her chair to join in. That's the power music has; it enables people to be contributors, not just receivers of care.' 

What is the Music Map for Dementia?
There’s lots of fantastic work being done around music and dementia across the UK but knowledge about it is fragmented. We’re creating a ‘Music Map’ so that you can type in your postcode and find musical activities near you, such as choirs, music groups, music therapy, dementia discos and more. Anyone can let us know what service they offer and we’ll put it on the map for others to find.

The campaign is funded by The Utley Foundation; can you tell us more about its aims?
The foundation is a family charitable trust founded in 2014. It exists to advance social causes close to the heart of the trustees, and to act as a catalyst for greater funding and wider action for the causes it supports. It has a particular interest in music intervention, but also providing help for children and veterans, and overseas aid.

Find out more about Music for Dementia 2020 and how to get involved here.

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