Why music matters to me even more during Covid-19: A personal perspective from a person living with dementia

Jennifer Bute, Retired doctor

I was doing my usual skipping exercise and then enjoying our community swings in solitary isolation when I heard some loud music… familiar music. It was such a joy and I wondered where it was coming from.

It was from our advanced dementia unit. The large meeting place for residents cannot be used at this time. Instead, I could see the tops of the heads of some who were outside or on their garden patio. Those who were bed bound, or alone in their rooms with their windows open, would all have heard the music too and it would have given them a sense of community. It was the same for me. I also felt drawn into the music.

Routines and confinement

It can be very lonely for people particularly if they are confined to their rooms. It is very difficult for them to feel part of a community or even see their relatives. At this time, music is important to all of us. Routines have been disrupted and patterns have changed but the rhythm and pattern of music never changes. This is something that is deeply rooted within all of us from conception: the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat and, after we are born, the soothing lullabies then the nursery rhymes.

As we grow older our musical horizons become wider. Many older people would have listened to classical music while waiting for school assembly to begin. In our teen years we would have heard the same music and songs on the wireless. While we were immersed in music before, we need it even more now during this time of Covid-19: through it we can rediscover ourselves in its rhythms, its memories and its beauty.

Musical radio

So many here in this dementia-friendly home can feel lonely, bored, anxious, stressed and low in spirit. But music can transform situations. In the community lounge we can almost always hear the Classical FM radio program. A few become distressed if it is turned off; it can settle others; and it even enables some of us to talk together who previously would not have done so. Recently one program brought back memories of pieces played for piano exams: happy memories that reassure us by their familiarity and even allow us to laugh at our own dismal attempts to perform the pieces.

I have a smart speaker, (Alexa) as do a few others here. It is so easy to ask for specific music pieces, composers or singers. Or when we are past recalling names we can just ask for peaceful music or any other adjective one likes!  Music can lift spirits, soothe situations, engage, enchant, and inspire. I am so grateful to be computer literate and have enjoyed the amazing musical renditions on YouTube by musicians performing in their own homes. I particularly liked the ‘hymn’ from Finlandia and Ode to Joy. Even the extraordinary man playing the type writer with the orchestra showing how rhythm is so important and is absorbed amongst the amassed instruments. Being able to share these with others  has been a joy for me as well as they are so appreciated by them.

Individual reactions

We are all different and that includes our taste in music. Although there is a vast reservoir of music loved by many, we all have preferences. I have seen people with dementia ’come alive’ with specific pieces of music, reinforcing the need for personalised playlists. Nevertheless, I have also seen music provoke ‘disasters’. There can be tunes and songs that can bring back hurtful memories and scary associations. We need to be sensitive to that. Live streaming is helpful but, where possible, musicians playing live in our dementia units are even more important. They can respond immediately as residents react.

Music has always been important to me and even more so in recent months and I can see it is so with all others living with dementia. I do so hope we will be able to continue to appreciate the power of music to bring individuals alive and communities together in the coming months.

BIOGRAPHY

 Jennifer Bute lives in a Dementia inclusive retirement village.  Previously she worked in Africa as a doctor then as a GP for 25 years involved in medical education. She resigned early as she realised things were not right, and was diagnosed with dementia ten years ago. She passionately believes more can be done to improve both the present and the future for those living with dementia and that music is fundamental to this.

Jennifer’s website is Glorious Opportunity and she has recently published book ‘Dementia form the Inside: a Doctor’s Personal Journey of Hope’ (available from Amazon). She also writes  a weekly blog on Facebook.