The benefits of music and singing for people living with dementia are truly remarkable. Not only does it have a calming effect, reducing anxiety and agitation, it enables them to reconnect with memories, making it an incredibly therapeutic activity for both people living with dementia and their loved ones and carers.
At Sanctuary Care’s Iffley Residential and Nursing Home in Oxfordshire, the home has started its own choir. Made up of residents, staff and loved ones, the impact it has had on residents living with dementia, in particular Barbara Goodwin, has been phenomenal.
The benefits of projects like this is backed up by leading dementia charity Alzheimer’s Society, which has over 300 Singing for the Brain groups across the country. The charity’s Director of Operations, Kathryn Smith said: “For a person living with dementia memories can become increasingly hard to retrieve, however music can sometimes help recall due to the preserved memory for song and music in the brain.
“Many people with dementia are still able to enjoy music and to sing even when they are starting to lose their language abilities, which is something that has been highlighted by the wonderful choral project at Sanctuary Care’s Iffley home. It is so inspiring to hear about stories like this. We know that singing can help people with dementia communicate, improve their mood, and leave them feeling good about themselves. Singing for the Brain groups can provide a way for people with dementia, along with their carers, to express themselves and socialise with others in a fun and mutually supportive environment.”
“Music is a great therapy. When we talk to mum about the choir her eyes light up, even if she can’t remember what she sang,” Fiona Evans, daughter of Barbara Goodwin who lives with Alzheimer’s at Sanctuary Care’s Iffley Residential and Nursing Home in Oxfordshire.
The early days
Like so many sons and daughters, Fiona and her sister Joanna Barrington have found their mother Barbara’s journey with dementia one that has been filled with mixed emotions. Feelings of anxiety, sadness and guilt associated with moving a loved one into a care home have now passed and the family can see she is now embracing a new life at Iffley – one where music has a huge role to play.
Looking back there were signs that Barbara, a former post office clerk, had developed dementia. She had slowly started to become withdrawn and was becoming increasingly forgetful. She would go on bus journeys alone for hours, completely losing track of time. Barbara started taking less care of her appearance and would forget to eat and drink. Fiona says: “It was incredibly sad to see a vibrant woman of the community slowly becoming withdrawn.”
Barbara was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the family had to think about the future.
Fiona comments: “As a family you have to make decisions and it’s very stressful. The role of the parent and child is reversed. However, it was a relief because we were able to get mum the care she so needed as it was not safe for her to continue living independently. There is no doubt that when you make this decision for a loved one the sense of guilt is overwhelming, but I found it best to think that this next chapter in mum’s life is for her to be safe and well looked after in a loving and friendly home, that I can visit at any time.”
Barbara moved into Iffley in 2004 and this is now her home.
Fiona says: “We sold it to her that she was staying in a nice hotel. She doesn’t always remember our names first time without being prompted but the most wonderful thing is she is safe.”
The power of music
From a very early age Barbara has always loved music and used to sing in the church choir as a little girl.
Fiona says: “Music gives her enormous pleasure, when she was listening to music she was just in her element.”
Inspired by the sense of joy and the overwhelming benefits that music brings to the lives of some of her residents, last year Iffley’s manager Sue Stubberfield decided to start a choir in the home. Led by her activities leader Rachel Bearn, who herself has a background in musical theatre; the choir is made up of both residents and the team. It has blossomed and the impact it is having is remarkable.
Rachel says: “Music unlocks parts of the brain that may have been lost. We have seen an amazing difference in our residents living with dementia. Residents who are less able to communicate verbally because of their dementia are suddenly singing whole songs and remembering all the words. We have some residents who find it hard to speak but when I start to sing their eyes light up. It is so special for their loved ones who have noticed a big difference and it makes them so happy to see their mother or father joining in.”
One former resident spoke English fluently but as her dementia progressed she reverted back to speaking in Spanish, her native tongue because in her mind she was a young lady again. However, Rachel started to sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ and she suddenly started to sing the entire song in English. She says: “It was wonderful because when she started to speak in Spanish it was obviously more difficult to have a conversation with her, but through music we could truly connect.”
The choir has been an inclusive way for all the staff in the home to engage with their residents. Rachel says: “No matter what your role, when you work in a care home you want to be close to your residents and share special moments with them – when you are singing with them you can do that. Sometimes they may not communicate verbally, but might hear a particular piece of music and burst into song. You can sing with them and there is that immediate connection. They open up and you can see how much better they feel.”
It is clear to see how much Barbara loves the choir and how wonderful it is for her well-being. As Rachel hands out song sheets she sits excitedly awaiting the music. Her expression when she sings is truly heart-warming. Her face is filled with joy as she sings Somewhere Over the Rainbow with what can only be described as sheer gusto. Her body language is as equally as expressive as she holds her hands up into the air as if to help her hit the high notes.
Fiona says: “Mum enjoys the choir so much it is a great part of her week, which makes her feel very happy. Music is a great part of the care for people living with dementia. It can stir forgotten memories which may have been lost some time ago. Some of the songs remind her of her school days in Penzance, Cornwall and she is keen to correct anyone who may get the words wrong to ‘Tea for Two’!”
Rachel agrees. She often sees a song or piece she is playing on the piano ignite a spark that triggers special memories for her residents.
She says: “They will suddenly remember the words to a whole song and where they were when they heard it. Or while I am playing the piano a resident may remember a completely different song and start singing it to us. It just unlocks their memories.”
Every resident is different and their ‘trigger’ songs are very individual to them, but some of their favourites include Danny Boy, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Daisy Daisy….
Fiona’s sister Joanna adds: “For people with dementia music takes them away from what is going on in their mind. It is like a meditation for them as it captures them completely. It marks a point in their history and they remember where they were and who they were with at that time. It is amazing how music does that.”