As a music therapist, never have I felt the power and strength of music more: A personal perspective from a music therapist working with people with dementia

Ming Hung Hsu, Music Therapy Lead for the national charity MHA

Many of us can probably still recall a video of a ballad sung out in solidarity into an empty street of Siena in central Italy during a national lockdown. This video captures a moment where music turns a standstill into a moving account of social connection. As a music therapist, never have I felt the power and strength of music more for breaking the isolation and loneliness caused by the social confinement.

A recent survey of 128 care homes by Alzheimer’s Society[1] suggests that the lack of social contact during the lockdown exacerbates the cognitive impairment of care home residents with dementia. Without family visits and the right level of medical care and stimulation, care home residents deteriorate significantly as they lose the ability to speak, eat and drink. As a music therapist who utilises music to address a person’s unmet social, cognitive, functional and emotional needs, I see an essential role for music to maintain the quality of life for people living with dementia during the current pandemic.

Engaging in music

Throughout the lockdown, I am honoured to work with a team of music therapists who have been delivering music therapy sessions in the care homes of the national charity MHA. By assessing a resident’s needs, I have seen one of my music therapy colleagues using music to help a resident to isolate in his bedroom. This resident normally paces continuously around the home as part of his symptoms of dementia. By engaging this resident in music listening and discussing the music-related pleasant events in the past, he is happy to sit in his bedroom whilst keeping himself and his fellow residents safe. To ease anxiety and reassure the family, I have also seen a resident requesting her music therapist to record a song that they sing together in the therapy session and send this recording as a message to her family.

Boosting morale

To prevent cross contamination, my colleagues have delivered group sessions via online video calls to the care homes which they do not currently travel to. Whilst a dark cloud is cast over the care home sector, music therapists apply their musical skills in the production of music videos which feature the singing and dancing of care home staff and residents.

Whether it is Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’ or Elton John’s ‘I’m still Standing’, the videos use these songs to boost staff morale and highlight the sacrifices care workers make every day at work. Whilst one may argue that music is not a priority among all the tasks during the outbreak, music therapists have used music to achieve specific goals and support the necessary tasks. Most importantly, music is used to promote resilience in order to continue the fight against the pandemic.

Caregiver-delivered music

In addition to care home settings, music may also improve certain health outcomes for people living in the community. As a researcher working as part of the international trial study ‘Homeside’[2], I see timely relevance of the study to tackle the social restrictions which again put people with dementia and their family caregivers at risks of social isolation and deteriorating health status. The study examines the effect of family caregiver-delivered music activities on the management of dementia symptoms such as agitation, apathy, depression and anxiety at home. As the project is an international collaboration, data will be collected from the UK, Australia, Poland, Norway and Germany.

In due course, the results may add weight to the universality of music and its impact on this specific clinical population across the globe. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the prevention of dementia. The incidence of dementia has been reported to link with risk factors such as the lack of social engagement and physical activity, depression, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes[3].

Presently, we might not have enough research evidence to suggest the ameliorating effect of music on these risk factors, particularly high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. However, music may motivate us to pursue a healthy lifestyle by tackling these risk factors. Since music has been used throughout the human history to help us bond, celebrate and heal, I see the power of music prevail more than ever during these trying times of a global pandemic.

REFERENCES

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/05/covid-19-causing-10000-dementia-deaths-beyond-infections-research-says

[2] Baker, F.A., Bloska, J., Braat, S., Bukowska, A., Clark, I., Hsu, M.H., Kvamme, T., Lautenschlager, N., Lee, Y.E.C., Smrokowska-Reichmann, A. and Sousa, T.V., 2019. HOMESIDE: home-based family caregiver-delivered music and reading interventions for people living with dementia: protocol of a randomised controlled trial. BMJ open, 9(11).

[3] Livingston, G., Sommerlad, A., Orgeta, V., Costafreda, S.G., Huntley, J., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., Burns, A., Cohen-Mansfield, J. and Cooper, C., 2017. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care. The Lancet, 390(10113), pp.2673-2734.

BIOGRAPHY

Dr Ming Hung Hsu is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research, Anglia Ruskin University and Music Therapy Lead for the national charity MHA. Ming’s research interests are mainly within the field of music therapy and dementia care.

By conducting mixed-methods research, Ming studies the role of music therapists in personalising dementia care and supporting caregivers. In addition, he is interested in how melody, tempo and timbre facilitates targeted cognitive processes and emotion regulation. Ming is currently working as part of the UK arm of the international trial study, HOMESIDE, funded by Alzheimer’s Society.