Using Music to Break Through to Dementia Sufferers

·6 min read

U.K.-based Music for Dementia is an organization dedicated to raising awareness for the integral role music can play in dementia care. My organization, Sage Stream, is a senior entertainment and education network that provides daily live-stream programming to older adults in all settings to help relieve social isolation.

SageStream has been fortunate to partner with Music for Dementia to bring some of their artists on board. I thought it would bring a nice international flair but soon came to realize that these artists across the pond are doing some wonderful work with music to help those with memory and dementia issues.

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Daily Music for Dementia Care

Glenn Bassett, also known as 'My Mate George' lives in London, England, and plays guitar and sings. He created Teatime Tunes, a daily song release -- a brilliant idea to help engage and foster positive behaviors from those suffering memory loss and dementia.

Every day in the U.K., George brings his unique style to YouTube, performing a familiar song with familiar props and cues, providing a consistent and comforting presence for dementia sufferers and their caregivers. He created it out of his own necessity -- as a long-haul COVID-19 survivor, he simply did not have the stamina to perform long sets as he used to do.

The components make it compelling.

-- Regularity and timing. He sets a regular time for his videos to be released, at 3 p.m. each day in time for mid-afternoon snacks.

-- Date and song number. Each day he displays the date, to help orient people in time (a little poster in the shot also reminds the viewer that it's 3 p.m.). He also has a song-number displayed, so that the viewer is aware lots of other songs have already appeared, and that this is a daily routine.

-- Props. He has a number of props that provide reassuring continuity, but also a bit of variety to encourage the viewer to notice little changes each day. Each day the mug for his tea changes, for example, and he briefly talks about that.

-- Food and drink. Caregivers often mention how tricky it can be to encourage their loved ones to eat and drink regularly, especially important with some medications. So "G" enjoying a cup of tea -- or cuppa, as he says -- and a snack is a very deliberate part of the videos, to gently encourage the viewer to do the same.

-- Familiar songs. Of course, the main element of each video is the song. The key is to encourage participation rather than simply passive viewing, so he tries to make every song jaunty and foot-tapping, even the slow ones.

Establishing a Routine

Each day establish a consistent routine with a loved one at a particular time. Pick one of their favorite songs, have a snack ready and sing together. If you can't be there yourself, participate by Zoom or FaceTime.

Encourage a home health aide or nursing assistant in a loved one's community to work with you to establish a consistent and familiar routine. Using music of course is preferred, as the benefits are well-documented.

[READ: 5 Signs It's Time for Memory Care.]

Taking Music Outdoors

Jessa Liversidge is a Scottish singer and singing leader based in North Yorkshire, U.K. A versatile singer with a wide range of repertoire Jessa has taken her singing outside since March 2020, singing her weekly " field sing" with the real songbirds in all weathers. Older audiences love the nature, the sounds and the solitude. At first just recording her material, she decided to take a chance and "go live."

The heightened atmosphere of a live performance engaged her audience in real-time, reacting and commenting as she sang. The 'field sing' idea was never intended to be a "perfect performance" but a natural one, singing with the birds, in all weathers.

Every Saturday, whatever the weather, she has gone outside, to fields, lanes or woods, and performed whatever song seemed apt at the time. Some weeks she has a song in mind; other weeks, she decides five minutes beforehand.

Jessa also leads a selection of choirs and singing groups, all with an emphasis on singing for health, well-being and fun! Using a loop pedal and pre-recorded tracks, she is able to create a live online choir experience suitable for all abilities.

Getting Your Loved One Outdoors

Perhaps each day when the weather is suitable, you take the same idea of establishing a consistent routine with a loved one by going to a park for lunch or snack. Mix in solitude with listening to some of mom or dad's favorite songs. Or simply find Jessa's or George's programs and watch and sing-along together.

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Connecting Music and Well-being

Inês Delgado is a violinist whose greatest passion is to explore how music can help others, and her purpose is to create meaningful musical moments to enhance people's health, well-being and happiness.

She has been the music ambassador for Turtle Song since 2019. In its 13th year, the organization brings music, songwriting, movement and singing to people with dementia and their caregivers. It was featured on the BBC documentary, Holding Back the Years.

She is also the 2020-21 London Philharmonic Orchestra Foyle Future First violinist, where she gets to work closely with the orchestra, have individual lessons with the players and receive numerous other training opportunities.

Inês put on a program for Sage Stream that consisted of reflective music listening. She plays a piece and then suggests emotions and feelings that it might draw out from you like gratefulness or calm. She then plays another selection and asks viewers to reflect on that as well.

Use Music to Alleviate Stress for Your Loved One

I am sure we are all not violin virtuoso's like Inês but her concept is a great one, especially for calming agitation in people with dementia. You could try playing classical music in mom or dad's room, watching one of Inês's programs or simply recreating her program yourself or in conjunction with an activity person. Using music to alleviate stress, induce calm and to help people reflect is a healing experience.

I am incredibly humbled and excited about the caliber of artists we have on Sage Stream but even more impressed with their mission-driven devotion to older people.

Anthony Cirillo, FACHE, is a health, aging and caregiving expert and president of The Aging Experience. He has over three decades of experience and has contributed numerous pieces for U.S. News' For Better blog since 2018. Cirillo creates caregiving solutions for the industry and connects companies and people to partners' services and products. A professional speaker and media influencer, Cirillo is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives with a Masters from the University of Pennsylvania.

He is also the creator of the Caregiver Smile Summit and the Sage Stream, the Senior Entertainment/Education Network. His consulting and speaking expertise serves a worldwide clientele. He is a member of the Nationwide Financial/NCOA Health and Wellness Roundtable and a member of the Bank of America Elder Care Policy Roundtable.

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