How music can help fight against dementia

September is World Alzheimer Month and The Echo, in partnership with the HSE’s ‘Dementia: Understand Together’ campaign, is featuring a series of articles on living with dementia this week. Here, Joan Fitzpatrick, HSE Senior Occupational Therapist, Living Well with Dementia programme, looks at how song and dance can help people
How music can help fight against dementia

Song and dance can help people with dementia. Picture: Stock

“SEE the person, not the dementia,” is a guiding principle when supporting someone who is living with a diagnosis of dementia.

It focuses on the truth that, despite having dementia, people have many of the same abilities, life-long skills and needs as before.

Dementia is usually far more than memory loss. The sensory challenges can be more difficult to cope with in day-to-day living. Alongside difficulties with language and expression, there can be issues around auditory and visual perception.

Music and dance can transcend these difficulties as they don’t rely on good language skills. They are non-verbal communication channels that can tap into deep memories and promote movement, balance and confidence.

Dance to the Music

Dancing isn’t just about music and steps. It’s a perfect combination of physical activity, social interaction and mental stimulation. It can move us to a different place and allow us to connect with others.

The Dance Theatre of Ireland offers online music and movement sessions inclusive of people with dementia, their partners and carers. Music is specially selected to connect creativity with exercise, whether seated or standing, and people have the freedom to move as they are able, with musicality, imagination and self-expression. Most importantly, everyone has fun.

Speaking of her experience of dance, a spouse, who had become her husband’s carer, told me: “This is the first time I have felt that we were a couple for so long. It feels so good and so normal”. The ability of a couple to be just that - a couple - can be part of a dementia diagnosis that is often forgotten about.

Lifting Spirits

There are lots of choirs that are inclusive of people with dementia. While many have been online of late due to Covid-19, it is hoped that they will return to a physical gathering in the near future. Choirs offer a weekly routine with familiar songs and faces. They’re often an opportunity for a choir member who can play an instrument to showcase their talents.

They provide a sense of belonging and lift spirits. Many community groups also hold tea dances which are another wonderful opportunity for people to relax, enjoy and connect.

A spouse whose husband had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s said to me: “Joining the choir was one of the best things we ever did. Seeing him close his eyes and tap along with the singing was great. I could see his mood lift and his smile broaden. It lasted all day.”

One woman joined with her mum which enabled both to enjoy social time together. “My experience in the choir was transformational. It enabled my mother and I to participate as equals in a highly enjoyable social activity. She adored singing. It was an activity that she knew she could do well despite the challenges she faced in other areas.”

Challenging the brain by remembering or carrying out skills that might otherwise lie dormant is important in maintaining a sense of self and living a full life. Singing, hearing or playing a favourite piece of music can lessen anxiety and distress and bring real pleasure to the person with dementia and their family member.

Top 5 Tips to Introduce Music into the Life of a Person with Dementia

1. Tailor the experience. Think about how the person with dementia has engaged with music previously. What music did they listen to? Did they enjoy concerts? Did they like singing? Would they join a choir?

2. Think about your environment. For some, being in a room with lots of movement and activity is great. For others, it can be distressing and a small gathering is best. People can be sensitive to noise, especially if unsure where it is coming from.

3. Bring music into the home. This can be as simple as playing Lyric FM or downloading favourite music onto a USB stick so that it’s always available. Why not dust down the record player and some old vinyl, or find some Golden Oldies or musicals on YouTube?

4. Strike up the band. Did the person play an instrument that has been lying idle in the attic all these years? Would a musical family member or friend play a few of the person’s favourite songs?

5. Look around you. A little research about what is happening in your locality can be revealing. When back up and running, a lunchtime recital or an evening concert can be a lovely way to spend some time. This newspaper, the library, or the County Council Arts Office are a great resource to find out what is happening locally.

The Dementia: Understand Together campaign is led by the HSE in partnership with The Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Age Friendly Ireland, Age and Opportunity and the Dementia Services Information and Development Centre. It aims to create communities that actively embrace and include those living with dementia and their families.

For information on choirs that are inclusive of people with dementia, use the service-finder at www.understandtogether.ie or contact The Alzheimer Society of Ireland Helpline for support on Freefone 1800 341 341 (Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm, Saturday 10am to 4pm).

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