A case study by The Together Project – Heath and Mavis often struggle to make themselves understood. They can’t always get the right words out, or they pronounce them in an unusual way. Last Wednesday afternoon, both of them became frustrated because they couldn’t communicate what they wanted.
Ten minutes later they belted out a word-perfect duet of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Heath is my two-year-old son. Mavis is a 102-year-old lady living with dementia. The setting was an east London care home.
Music has an incredible effect on both our hearts and our heads – at whatever stage of life’s journey we’re at. For the very young, listening to music and learning the words to songs helps our brains grow and develop. For older people, particularly those living with dementia, familiar songs from times gone by often remain in our brains long after more recent memories have faded, and the act of recalling them can bring powerful, positive effects. For everyone, music can help lift mood, calm us down and bring us together.
Songs & Smiles, where Heath and Mavis met, is a multi-age music group for 0-4 year olds, their parents/guardians and care home residents. We sing, move, play, make friends and have lots of fun. It’s run by The Together Project, a social enterprise I founded in 2017 with the mission of reducing loneliness, improving wellbeing and uniting local communities through joyful intergenerational activities.
The benefits of bringing younger and older people together are numerous and well-documented, as everyone from the NHS to Channel 4’s Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds have proven. By combining intergenerational get-togethers with music, Songs & Smiles has an incredibly potent effect.
In the words of Karolina, an Activities Coordinator at Ross Wyld, the first care home we launched in (which has now sadly closed), “Songs & Smiles was the best thing we could ever do. Everybody was so happy every week to have you here. It was amazing, like a miracle”.
Evaluation in conjunction with care home staff, residents and their families has shown that the activity brings about:
- Uplift in mood and happiness levels
- Improvement in motor skills and physical ability
- Increased sense of ‘something to look forward to’
- Development of verbal and communication abilities for people living with dementia
As Karolina says, “This kind of session is amazing for people with dementia. It brings back the memories, it’s really, really helpful”. Giving people the chance to revisit familiar melodies and activities from their past can be hugely therapeutic. The families of people living with dementia often like to join Songs & Smiles as it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to just ‘be’ with their loved one and watch them enjoy themselves, without having to navigate the challenges with communication that dementia can sometimes pose.
And it’s not just the residents and their families that benefit. Care home staff have reported an uplift in their own mood and happiness levels and a decrease in stress, while parents of the children have commented on how uplifting and joyful they find the sessions and how much their children gain.
What’s more, by making older people a regular part of children’s lives, we can help to normalise the ageing process and make future generations more understanding of – and compassionate towards – disability and conditions such as dementia.
We find that the children act as a draw, enticing even those residents who don’t normally get involved in activities, to come and see what it’s all about. And then familiar tunes captivate them, making them feel a part of something, that this is ‘something for them’. An impact report from one of the homes we work in described a lady with dementia who doesn’t often participate in activities, but was intrigued by the arrival of the children. She had been in a ‘low mood’ during the day, pacing the corridors, and initially didn’t want to enter the lounge. She was persuaded to take a seat, “but didn’t appear to engage in the activity until one of the songs came on that she knew – she then started singing and using the instruments and coloured scarves”. Staff report that her mood had greatly improved following the session.
Music is also integral to our aim of making Songs & Smiles a relaxing, enjoyable activity for the parents and children. Care homes can be an unfamiliar environment for lots of people – what kind of people will I meet? How do I talk to somebody living with dementia? For others, care homes can evoke painful memories associated with loved ones. But by the time we’ve all sung hello to each other, danced with coloured scarves to ‘That’s Amore’, tapped out the rhythm as we sing along to ‘Oh When The Saints’ and laughed along to our Peekaboo song, the barriers are broken down and everyone feels part of a group. This makes it much easier to have a chat over a cup of tea and biscuit at the end of the session, helping new friendships form as the weeks progress. One of the mums described the atmosphere as ‘one of uplifting merriment!’ We couldn’t put it better ourselves.
The Together Project is a not-for-profit social enterprise. You can find out more, get involved or donate to help us grow at www.thetogetherproject.co.uk. Louise can be reached on mailto:[email protected] or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.