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Music, a dementia wonder drug?

Its anticipated that by 2021 there will be 1 million people living with dementia in the UK. It is a degenerative disease that can strip away a person’s memories, habits and lifestyle and can be a very painful and difficult condition for sufferers, families and carers to deal with.

For the last 8 years of his life, I helped my own father deal with it. In the end he struggled to remember the names of his family members, even how to make a cup of tea in the right order but there was one untouched area of his life, music.  Throughout his life my father loved music and singing. My earliest memories are of him waking me up singing along to classic FM or to his large vinyl collection of Scottish and Irish folk music.  

Later into his condition some days were worse than others but no matter how confused or lost he felt, that first sound would sweep him up in a wave of euphoria.  He remembered every note, every word.  As his carer, this was such a happy time for us both.  My dad was back, the anxiety was lifted and our relationship felt lighter even after the music stopped.

More recent research has proven that music is the only part of memory impenetrable to dementia. For many people living with the condition music is not just luxury but an absolute necessity. To deny them of it is as detrimental to their wellbeing as to deny them food or water. Yet our social care system has little in the way of provisions for music and art, particularly for those in institutional care.

Research has shown that regular access to personalised music listening and creation dramatically reduces the amount of medication needed on a daily basis.  That means that, potentially, access to music would mean a reduction in the cost of care for many as well as a spike in happiness and wellbeing.

The Dream Machine want to play our part in helping these necessary improvements to the lives of those who have given and deserve so much more.  Recently we trialled a short Dream Session with the East Kilbride Dementia Care Group.

Tailored to participant’s age and home we used Scottish and Glaswegian folk music along with stunning scenery from the Scottish Highlands and classic footage from the Scottish archives showing life in Glasgow throughout the decades.

During the session, everyone spontaneously joined in singing and afterwards many had a story and memory to share. The trial was 20 minutes long and the impact was profound. As a group, the mood was high, we laughed a lot and the women were sharing fond memories with their carers.

Brian from Eask Kilbride Dementia Care Group told us:

“That was fabulous this morning… every single person got something from it… including the staff!  One lady who is generally quiet and withdrawn started talking about her days as a nurse as soon as the film ended!

One other sang her heart out to the likes of Coulters Candy… and in the bus on the way home, repeatedly told the lady sitting next to her what a great time she had! 

You did really well to put that together for us.

Even though the folks we support have dementia and may well forget being in the room, the feel good factor created by the increased endorphins will remain with them, so the positive effect is a lasting one!”

Our plans are now to develop a pilot program of events working specifically with people with dementia. Working with partners, we can identify specific music and imagery from individual’s lives and in our Dream Room develop bespoke musical and visual experiences. From this we can implement a holistic program working continually with groups to incorporate music into their daily lives.  In addition to the activities in the Dream Room we will also create personalised playlists for participants’ own MP3 players, regular Dream Room AV sessions and live music creation working with trained music therapists.

A program that meets the needs of those who have given so much and deserve happiness, to sing, to dance and enjoy memories of their lives. Thanks to music (and his beloved dog!) my dad lived out his days singing, dangind and with a smile on his face.

By Matt Lygate

Further watching: Institutions are beginning to wake up and take these findings into account more and more now. There is an increase in social prescribing from GPs and more care homes are bringing in music and art therapies and personalised playlists. There is an amazing campaign called pushing for these changes and documentaries like are raising awareness and bringing these issues into the public domain.


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