We all have that one song that fills us with joy, and transports us back in time. Music and sound can have a powerful impact on us, and it has become the latest technique used to care for those living with dementia.
Music and dance are well-known for boosting mood, and reducing stress and anxiety. For many, a particular song takes them back to a specific time in their childhood, or a certain dance move transports them back to their youth.
It’s understandable then, why these two hobbies have such a profound effect on those who have dementia.
Dementia is a condition that affects the brain: damaging the brain’s nerve cells, so that messages can’t be sent and received by the brain, which prevents normal bodily function.
Currently, there are over 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK; a figure that’s expected to rise to over one million by 2020.
Music Mirrors is a programme that uses music to help those living with dementia to retain their identity and keep their memories alive.
Users compile a list of favourite songs and sounds that remind them of specific memories from throughout their life, for example a lullaby sung by parents or the song used during the first dance at their wedding.
Alongside the list, the person should also create a set of notes with information about the importance of each sound, to be read back to them after their dementia has progressed, to remind them about their life.
“Music means so much to many people,” explains Music Mirrors founder, Heather Edwards.
“I created Music Mirrors to help people through the difficult bits of life. It’s not just for listening to music; the Music Mirror is a way for people to keep their identity by using special words or catchphrases that they used to use.”
Heather created Music Mirrors after experiencing the effects of the condition first-hand; Heather supported her father, who required dementia care, when he experienced a stroke.
“It’s like getting a torch to take into the darkness if you know you’re going to be ill later, or it might be harder for you to communicate,” continues Heather.
“When a family has dementia in it, they’ve had so much taken away from them, that you really want to give them something back.”
While a Music Mirror can bring comfort to someone with dementia, it can also be extremely rewarding for family members, to see the effects it has, but also to keep as their loved one’s legacy, after they pass.
Katharine Haworth’s mother made a Music Mirror after her dementia symptoms began.
“Making a connection through words and music was something that endured throughout her illness, even in her last couple of years in the care home,” remembers Katharine.
“When the carers saw the immediate positive effect of certain music on my mum’s mood, they started to make use of it in their daily routines.”
Listening to and taking part in music classes doesn’t just stimulate long-term memory: it also reduces social isolation and boosts confidence, self-esteem and quality of life.
“Her eyes would light up and she would start to sing along, full of confidence, remembering all the words,” continues Katharine. “For that moment, it was as if she knew who she was and felt connected and in control again.
“When I saw and listened to the Music Mirror, I learnt things I’d never known about my mum’s past.”
Music and dance go hand in hand, and both are useful when caring for thosewho have dementia.
Astrologer and ex-Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Russell Grant, is a dedicated campaigner for dementia awareness.
“I was a carer for my grandmother, Alice, who had Alzheimer’s,” explains Russell.
“I noticed that singing, dancing and music would really cheer her up: her eyes would light up, especially if it was stuff she’d remembered, for example from the war years.”
Last year, Russell launched his own dementia support charity, Dance for Your Life, after realising the importance of dance, movement and music during his time on Strictly.
“Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Dementia UK supported us, saying how music and dance are so important for the brain, mind and mobility,” says Russell.
“When I work with people with dementia and Alzheimer’s I can see them light up. The music and dance give such a positive influence, and a brightness.”
Part of Russell’s goal is to bring more awareness to the condition.
“The big problem is people have nowhere to call,” he says. “Who takes care of the carer?”
“We were a bit out of our depth, and information didn’t seem to be readily available,” agrees Katharine. “But, try not to worry about the small things that go wrong, laugh at the bizarre things that happen if you can, allow the person with dementia to feel reassured and right – even if they’re not.”
As well as different types of therapies, there are products that can help people who have dementia maintain their daily routine and independence.
The Pivotell Advance automatic pill dispenser reminds the user to take their medication by means of an alarm and flashing light. Making the correct dose available at the correct time of day or night whilst keeping other pills locked and out of sight, the dispensers are used mainly by people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Their use often results in improved health, more independence and a better quality of life.