Our first blog of the week looks at how music can be used as a way to help care for and support people living with dementia. It was contributed by Doctor Victoria Williamson, Director of Music and Wellbeing, at the University of Sheffield.
Music is powerful, multi-functional, ageless and universal: one of the greatest human inventions.
You will, no doubt, know music that instantly transports you back in time to a treasured memory. Lyrics pop automatically to your mind. You remember music from decades ago but struggle with the names of people you met just days before.
Psychological studies support these anecdotal accounts of the power of music in long-term memory. Individuals who face extreme challenges to their memory, such as amnesia or dementia, rarely lose these musical connections.
I run the ‘Music and Wellbeing’ research unit at the University of Sheffield and for the last year my team has been looking at the impacts of live music sessions in dementia care*. Nine South Yorkshire care homes opened their doors to us and we recorded remarkable moments between the community of individuals living with dementia, their carers and loved ones, and the visiting musicians.
We are convinced that music helps many people living with dementia, and supports the community that surrounds them.
Improving memory, mood and social engagement
- Memory – music interventions are not just for triggering life memories. The magic of music is that it requires and stimulates brain systems that are less damaged than those required for active recollection. These include memories for emotions and for motor behaviours like singing or moving to the beat. In the live music sessions, we observed people who were thought to be non-verbal singing along to favourite songs. In an unfamiliar world, music provides a comforting and rewarding activity for surviving memory systems.
- Mood stability – studies report reductions in depression, anxiety and verbal aggression in response to musical care initiatives. An important factor here is that the music sessions are regular and over several weeks. Music is not a magic bullet; in reality mood changes are gradual.
- Social engagement – live music has significant advantages over recorded music. Singing and moving to music are highly familiar social activities fostered by years of performing ‘Happy Birthday’, hymns, anthems and folk songs. Live music provides a way for people living with dementia to interact and share a pleasurable experience with their carers and loved ones.
As our research moves on, we aim to spread the word about the real positive effects of music by empowering everyone with the confidence to try musical interactions as a way to share the world and company of individuals living with dementia.
*Lost Chord is delighted to have been able to support the research by Dr Victoria Williamson which was all conducted in sessions arranged by Lost Chord using their musicians and volunteers. Lost Chord visits these residential homes and day centres on a regular monthly basis in order to have a therapeutic impact on the lives of all those living with dementia in an attempt to improve their quality of life, raise their self- esteem and reduce their isolation, thereby hoping to reduce the stigma of dementia and raise awareness to its impact on society.