‘Music’s unique ability to transform people’s lives – even for an instant – cannot be underestimated’

March 11, 2022
Photo of Baroness Greengross

To celebrate National Social Prescribing Day on March 10th, we teamed up with Baroness Greengross, Crossbench Peer, to write about the importance of music for people living with dementia and their carers.

The piece was published in the Telegraph and is shared here with their kind permission.

Baroness Greengross writes in the Telegraph

Last month I proposed an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill which was read in the House of Lords on the evening of Wednesday 9th February 2022. It was a positive and successful debate. The government said that when they release the National Dementia Strategy later this year it will include the promotion of social prescribing, and I’m very hopefully music will be a core part of this.

I’ll be monitoring this closely, as it’s a subject close to my heart. Many years ago, I went to a concert in one of London’s big concert halls.  During the performance, I was moved to tears by a gentleman who was conducting the orchestra beautifully. This man had been in a Westminster care home for 20 years living a withdrawn life; he was largely uncommunicative, but he did hum. By chance his humming was heard by someone connected to the Royal Academy of Music, who recognised the beauty in his gesture, so they arranged for a group of young professional musicians to orchestrate his humming. Eventually, on this evening in London, this elderly man was given the opportunity to conduct his own music and came right back to being himself. It was an experience I shall never forget and I feel honoured to have been in the audience.  It was so moving that I couldn’t hold back my tears.

That evening I watched the power of music in action. I will never forget this experience and it is what drove me to put forward the amendment to this bill.

Today there are 885,000 people living with dementia in the UK and the annual cost to the UK economy is £26bn. That’s more than cancer and chronic heart disease combined.  By 2040 it is expected that the number of people with dementia will almost double to 1.4 million, and the impact on the already stretched NHS and UK economy will be huge.  We need fresh thinking and innovation to manage a crisis like this.

Social prescribing, and specifically the prescribing of music, is not a silver bullet but it has been proved to have a dramatic impact on the health and wellbeing of people living with dementia. In recent years there has been significant developments in music therapy and music and health research by experts such as Prof. Helen Odell-Miller OBE and her team at the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research, Prof. Sebastian Crutch, and Prof. Jason Warren, which have explored the impact of music on the brain as well as the relational aspects of musical interactions. Prof. Helen Odell-Miller and the team have recently been awarded The Queen’s Anniversary Prize for their world-leading music therapy work, in particular, their research with people living with dementia, and their families.

Music therapy has been shown to be the most effective type of non-pharmacological intervention for reducing the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia. We know that singing is good for you. Residents who took part in a music therapy choir in 2016 more than doubled their quality of life scores whilst halving their depressive symptoms. Elsewhere, it has been proved that playing a musical instrument in older adulthood may help to reduce the risk of developing dementia by more than a third.

While Lord Winston rightly pointed out in the Parliamentary debate on 9th February that ‘we simply do not understand the truth of interaction (of music) that makes these things work’ it does not mean we should dismiss the bank of evidence that demonstrates that music does indeed have many benefits over people living with dementia. Of course, more money is needed for further research to understand this link better, but we already have a robust understanding that the ability to process, respond to and engage with music remains intact however severe the dementia when it has been personalised and tailored to an individual’s preferences and needs. Further investment into music and dementia research should be made as part of the Government’s Dementia Moonshot commitment to double spending on dementia research.

Furthermore, at a time when the health and social care sector is stretched beyond belief, we need to consider the potential savings that can be made using musical care treatment. Music is a significantly more cost-effective non-pharmacological intervention than other interventions such as anti-psychotic medication. Music therapy has been proven to reduce agitation and the need for medication in 67% of people living with dementia. This was powerfully demonstrated in a care setting in Scotland, which reduced the use of anti-psychotic medication by up to 60% in some residents when the GP prescribed a personal playlist as the first intervention staff should try when managing the symptoms of dementia, such as agitation and distress. For every £1 invested in the Silver Lining music and dementia project, the social return on investment was £1.93 – a 93% increase.

For carers, music’s unique ability to transform people’s lives – even for an instant – cannot be underestimated. It can be like a short-term miracle to once again have your loved one right there in the present with you. Dementia is destructive, but it needn’t be a death sentence. We need to look for innovative ways to improve the quality of life for people with the condition and ensure they can stay connected to their loved ones.

Today is National Social Prescribing Day, which is why I’m writing about this subject. It’s a moment for us all to recognise that medicine isn’t the only solution to our health needs. The National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) was launched in October 2019 and given the terrible impact of the pandemic it could not be needed more.

NASP are great advocates of personalised care, and the power that music can have for people living with dementia. In August last year they teamed up with the campaign, Music for Dementia, to co-fund a series of grants to organisations delivering musical services for people living with dementia. Music for Dementia is a national campaign calling for music to be made accessible to everyone with a diagnosis of dementia and for it to become an integral part of dementia care plans. I am a big advocate of the campaign and I will continue to support its work.

The fight for effective interventions for people living with dementia continues. More research is needed to better understand the link between music and dementia, and more needs to be done at a local level to raise awareness about the benefits that music can have, so social care professionals and home carers feel empowered to use music on a daily basis.

Next month Music for Dementia will be launching its Power of Music report alongside UK Music, and I hope it helps to influence policy and practice. The time for talking is over. Awareness now needs to turn to action.