With Dementia Action Week 2022 (16th – 20th May) focussing on diagnosis, it’s important for family and carers to know how they can use music to support people living with dementia from the very beginning.
Music, in all its many forms, can help create routines for anyone living with dementia, as well as evoke memories, bring joy when they’re feeling down and create a feeling of calm if they’re agitated or overwhelmed.
Many people don’t think of themselves as musical, but the wonderful thing about music is that there are many ways you can use it when caring for others, even if you’ve never picked up an instrument before. Music is such a powerful tool in dementia care and we’re sure you’ll find yourself listening to music, singing along, tapping your feet or dancing to music with your loved one in no time.
While lots will be happening around the point of diagnosis and in the early stages afterwards, it can be good time to have some musical conversations that can help establish what music matters to your loved one. The more personalised music you use, the more benefits it’s likely to have in the long run. Ask questions about what genres of music they enjoy most, and the specific artists and eras they fondly recall. Individual songs from their favourite films or momentous days such as weddings can also be really powerful. Make a note of these conversations as they can help you prepare personalised playlists now and in the future.
With digital music so readily available, it’s easier than ever to put together personalised playlists for people with dementia. You can create different playlists to impact and change moods, or for different times and activities in the day. Getting going in the morning can be tricky for some but a playlist with uplifting and much loved songs can help your loved one feel motivated to start the day and get them into a positive state. Similarly, when things get too much and they’re feeling agitated, turning on a calming playlist, featuring soothing, slower paced music, can help to reassure and comfort.
You can also use playlists to listen together, sing, dance or hold hands because songs that resonate are also perfect for creating moments of connection.
If you’ve been able to have musical conversations, you’ll already know what kind of music to include. If you don’t know or are unsure about the musical taste of the person you’re caring for, keep in mind that research shows we recall music from our teenage years the best, so think about what songs would have been popular in those decades.
If you’re unsure about how to put together a playlist using online streaming services, perhaps a family member could help. Playlists can come in many forms – online, through smart TVs or mix tapes/CDs. Think about what technology your loved one feels comfortable using (and that you’re able to support them in using) to help make it easy to access the music they love.
Singing is something we can all do, whatever we think of our voices. At home, singing together can be a lovely way to connect with the person you’re caring for. Outside of the home, you may consider finding a dementia singing group or choir your loved one can join. Choirs can offer stimulation, encourage social interaction and reduce social isolation and loneliness, giving your loved one the opportunity to feel part of a group – and you the chance to find support from the family, friends and carers of other members.
Music can enhance and enrich the quality of care, whether that’s helping to provide distraction during personal care or support at mealtimes.
Talk with your healthcare practitioner about making music an integral part of your loved one’s personalised care plan. How is music already used in the care setting? Could there be more music provided and when would be the best time for this to happen?
Also discuss with them all the points in your loved one’s day when music might have a role to play, what it would help support with and how best for them to experience their music – is it through a playlist, singing, playing an instrument or dancing to music?
Ask if they will make music an integral part of your loved one’s personalised care plan. It has been shown to be the best type of therapy for reducing the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia and proven to help reduce the need for medication. Don’t assume that healthcare professionals will automatically include music in care plans, so ask questions and make sure it is written into their care plan, alongside other key information about them, to ensure it’s not overlooked.
Coming to terms with and processing what a diagnosis of dementia means can take time and give rise to a range of emotions and feelings that need to be expressed and worked through.
Working with a music therapist can be particularly beneficial for those who aren’t able to describe their feelings and emotions using language or find it hard to put into words what it means for them.
For some, the privacy of individual sessions allows people their own safe space to work through emotions, which may be too much to share with others. For some, group music therapy sessions enable them to share their experiences with others going through similar experiences and feel the support from their shared understanding, letting them know they’re not alone.
By working with a music therapist, people with dementia can develop their own unique musical language to explore and process feelings and emotions. By working with feelings in music, they can be processed and transformed into something else and be reminded of what is still possible though music.