“Paul has whistled and sung to pop tunes all his life,” says Hillary Knowles of her husband and partner of 26 years. “If he was happy, he whistled and sang. He seemed to know all the words!”
Paul was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the end of 2016 and music continues to be source of comfort to him.
“If something made him anxious or didn’t make sense, his default mechanism was to start singing and sometimes also have a dance around the kitchen,” says Hillary. “We have always played music in the house – and latterly it enabled him to really switch off. He loves musicals, and Andrea Bocelli would have him in raptures.”
Moving into care
“I noticed that Paul wasn’t whistling any more and can’t honestly remember when it stopped but would guess at about a year ago, as he deteriorated,” she continues. In June 2020, with Paul struggling to recognise her and Hillary unable to keep him safely in the house, she was supported by her GP to find a place for him in a care home.
Heather Heighway, music therapist at the MHA care home, Beechville in Bolton, where Paul is now a resident, says: “Paul had a couple of drop in 1-1 music therapy sessions and participated in a group session, when he first arrived.
“Our main concern was Paul’s anxiety. It’s a big transition to move from your home and he kept trying to leave. Music was a way of trying to redirect his attention.”
MHA’s music therapy department is core to the care team and has continued to work throughout the COVID pandemic. They have adjusted therapists’ schedules to safely visit a specific care home for a 6-week block, rather than spending a day a week in different homes across the organisation. In between times, the homes can access singalong videos and live virtual sessions and other musical resources from the team, as well as musical content and collaboration with Together with Music.
Hillary readily agreed to a series of half hour 1-1 sessions for Paul. “I got to see pictures and videos of him singing along which also helped me. It was the first time I had seen him a bit calmer. He was confused, but not so distressed,” she explains.
The sessions took place four times a week, and by the end of the first week Heather could already see a change in Paul. “To start with he found it difficult to sustain his attention, but soon we were sharing the music and using his working memory to offset his symptoms.
“We would sing, improvise and share in an equal relationship within the music, with me supporting and offering accompaniment on the guitar or piano, and Paul contributing by drumming on his knees or a chair.
To support Paul with the transition to and from the music therapy sessions, he and Heather would sing as they walked along the corridor. Paul took to marching in time to their ‘hello’ song, ‘Good Morning’ from Singing in the Rain. The tune created positive associations for him and he would sing it to Heather if he saw her at any time outside their therapy sessions, too.
Hillary says: “I believe that music is a wonderful tonic for anyone but more so when the person has dementia. It’s calming and can reignite memories from their past. It’s something they can still do in a world that is ever decreasing for them and a way to give them feelings of self-worth, and that is so important for everyone.”
When the individual sessions came to an end, Paul cheerfully joined in with group activities and has been very involved in supporting, finding his role in helping others to enjoy the music therapy. If he’s not involved in music making, Paul can be found in the kitchen or the garden, energetically and purposefully assisting with whatever tasks he’s assigned.
Caring and sharing
Through videos and feedback from the Music Therapists, the activities and care staff members know which music each resident enjoys most and can use it in their everyday care. Beechville also has a closed Facebook Group where family members can see video clips of activities, including music.
Hillary finds these posts a great addition to her window or video visits, which can cause Paul anguish. “It’s great to see Vicky and Heather going round the suites with a guitar or keyboard singing to the residents, and the residents are singing or dancing along with them. It just proves how it lifts everyone’s spirits. All in all, I can’t thank the music therapy girls enough,” she says.
And the whistling? Not long into his 1-1 therapy sessions with Heather, Paul was heard whistling and singing ‘Magic Moments’ as he left. “To hear that filled my heart fit to burst and, to me, proves just how valuable this therapy is,” declares Hillary.