Guest blog – Living well with dementia: understanding the benefits of music therapy

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Today’s guest post is from Donald Wetherick, Chair of Trustees at the British Association for Music TherapyAge UK recently took part in a Parliamentary roundtable exploring the benefits of music therapy for people living with dementia, as part of Music Therapy Week.

Over 800,000 people in Britain live with dementia. This is expected to increase to 2 million by 2050. For the growing number of people living with dementia, their carers and families, music therapy can play an important role in supporting their wellbeing and quality of life.

Oliver Sachs, the well-known neurologist, in his book ‘Musicophilia’, describes music therapy as seeking to ‘address the emotions, cognitive powers, thoughts and memories, the surviving “self” of the patient… to enrich and enlarge existence, to give freedom, stability, organisation and focus.’

Leading research shows it can significantly improve the lives of people with dementia, reducing agitation, isolation and depression as well as the need for medication. It can help people at all stages of dementia.

David Jaques is 81 years old. Four years ago he was diagnosed with two kinds of dementia, both vascular and Alzheimer’s. He has progressive short-term memory loss, has difficulty organising his time and sometimes gets lost. His wife, Penny, hoped music therapy would give him pleasure and stimulate him as it became harder to engage in previous interests. Now, she says, ‘music therapy is the high spot of David’s week.’

‘The brain remembers emotional experiences more easily than facts, and the emotional nature of music helps these memories come to the fore,’ explains his music therapist, Pemma Spencer-Chapman.

Pemma is one of over 800 state registered music therapists who use the unique non-verbal properties of music to support people at all stages of their lives – from helping new born babies develop healthy bonds with their parents, to offering vital, sensitive and compassionate palliative care at the end of life.

Music therapists often work within a multidisciplinary team alongside other professionals such as speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, doctors, paediatricians, teachers, social workers, consultants, psychologists and psychiatrists. Individual and group sessions are provided in many settings including hospitals, schools, hospices and care homes. The therapist’s approach is informed by different theoretical frameworks, depending on their training and the health needs of each individual.

They don’t teach people how to play an instrument, and there is no pre-requisite to ‘be musical’ in order to engage in music therapy. Depending on person-centred needs, music therapists offer individual or group music therapy sessions. For an older person with dementia, this could be helping them to feel valued and heard.

Dementia care is a growing area of healthcare need, as highlighted in the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia 2020. The British Association for Music Therapy believes that music therapy has a role to play in delivering the Challenge.

Read  more about the use of music in dementia care on the Age UK website 

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