There has been much discussion of the strong connection between music and dementia. Yet, I had never thought much further than the obvious ‘sing-along’. In attending Music & Dementia: Where Do We Go From Here?, I was witness to stirring, specialist practitioners sharing their work and showcasing best practice, heart-warming stories, live music and a challenge for those who were there. What was most beneficial was realising that music is so much more than something to listen to.
Dementia describes different brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. These conditions are traditionally progressive and ultimately severe. Symptoms of dementia include memory loss and confusion, as well as problems with speech and understanding. There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over a million by 2025. 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
My grandmother was diagnosed with the degenerative disease over three years ago. I watched as she quickly transformed from a bright, warm role model, to an aggressive and distant shell of her former self. She seemed to have seamlessly slipped away from us. In spite of this, one of my most treasured memories of my grandmother was a shared experience with music after her diagnosis.
Granny always held a passion for music, which I never quite understood when I was younger. I mean, she played an air guitar the wrong way round. However, her true passion came to light when the family treated her to see The Sound of Music. The audience quickly asked, ‘How do you solve a problem like my grandmother?’, as her bellowed singing matched that of the cast. There was something about music and the power it has to reach someone that seemed, on the surface, so far away.
This idea sharing session led by Dr Jane Bentley, who you cannot help but be enthused by, allowed the audience to explore this power, travelling through Singapore, where they use rhythmic music to overcome culture and language barriers; Japan, where they have a thirty piece orchestra made up of hospital patients with varying stages of dementia; and Korea, where they have a strong traditional culture that gets everybody involved in music. We discovered that, regardless of where we are in the world, music can be used as a method of communicating across cultures, languages and age.
Opening with a beautiful rendition of ‘Loch Lomond’, performed by Alison Green on the bassoon, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Reconnect Project, described by Anna Hainsworth, allowed the audience to take part in aspects of the sessions they run for those with dementia. We experienced first-hand the performed repertoire, improvised repertoire and group playing that they would use in their workshop sessions, using Harry Potter wand type chimes, the audience could accompany Alison as we communicated though body language, facial expression and music, a new language we may want to pay more attention to.
Andy Lowndes, then introduced us to Playlist for Life, an exceptional programme which looks at engaging those living with dementia with songs from their past. He presented a screening of the story of Harry and Margaret, who had not been able to communicate during visits due to Harry’s dementia. However, with help from Playlist for Life they were able to reconnect over songs that evoke memories from Harry’s life. There are few who wouldn’t have been affected by watching such a beautiful story unfold in front of us. Music was the setting and context that allowed this couple an opportunity to share, once again, with each other.
My granny has now been taken into full time care, and visits are hard on all the family. Nevertheless, Music & Dementia has allowed me to hope that I may still be able to have a meaningful way of communicating with her and continuing our relationship even with this illness. It has inspired me to seek out new ways to share with my granny. I may not know exactly why music has such an influence, or precisely how I should use this, but it is important to recognise that it does work and that it is a medium, a language, that friends, families and care professionals can and should make use of. I know that for me and for my Grandmother, it will not only be the hills that are alive with the sound of music.
by Jamie Goodwin
Music for Dementia was part of Music & Mental Health Day at Paisley Arts Centre. This open event saw networks and partnerships developed in East Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire across various private, public and third sector organisations. Playlist for Life were also involved in fundraising concert The Power of Music at Saint Luke's.