I have recently had the absolute privilege of working with the charity Lost Chord which produces more than 1,300 interactive musical sessions a year in 130 homes, designed to stimulate responses from people with dementia through the use of music. Before my first concert with them I knew the basic power of music: that it can heal and bring joy to people of all ages and stages in life, however I was truly struck by the sheer magic that song/music produces and saw some responses that blew my mind.
The mind is a wonderfully complex organ which can do incredible things, however it is not immune to disease and decline and the epidemic of Dementia/Alzheimer's Disease is a fact we can't shy away from.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not actually a specific disease; it is a general term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's Disease counts for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular Dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common dementia type. The signs and symptoms are various but here are areas that are most affected:
Some suffers can be in the early stages of Dementia for quite some time, whilst others decline rapidly.
Music is Medicine
Whilst singing in care homes I have seen residents with a wide range of symptoms, stages and severity; from mild to the very last stages where they are hospitalised.
What I want to write about here isn't the scientific reasoning or research behind the disease or what is physically happening to a suffer; I want to share my experience with music and dementia and the true healing/regenerative properties of song.
Walking into one particular care home in Sheffield, I saw many elderly people; some slumped in chairs, others in wheelchairs. One woman was whining and crying to a carer, tugging on her sleeve. Another was trying to get up whilst repeatedly being told to 'sit back down'. Others were chatting, mumbling to themselves, rocking in their chairs or being fed by a carer. I felt my chest tighten and my heart pick up a pace- the smell of human excrement and lack of fresh air gripping me tight. I thought to myself: "how are you going to make a difference to these people who are suffering so badly? Is singing them a song really going to do anything? You're no nurse, what you know about medicine is frankly not worth knowing!" I felt a bit silly, hopeless and was looking for the nearest exit.
After introducing myself and my lovely pianist, I started my first song ('The Trolly Song' made famous by the legend Judy Garland) I smiled and made eye-contact, walking around the room singing to the residents feigning confidence and ease. I tried to radiate joy and love through the song and to my amazement one woman begins singing along with me. The next song 'Moon River' has a calming effect on the more agitated residents in the audience and I see some residents smile and look like they are transported to a time where they first heard this song. As our programme went on we witnessed residents clapping, dancing and moving in time with the music.
Another care home I sang in there was a gentlemen at the back of the room who had a carer by his side. He looked expressionless and was quite immobile. During the course of the concert I plucked up the courage to start what I call 'working on' this man. I smile and sing directly to him, looking deep into his eyes. To the amazement of the carer he started singing the song back to me with the widest grin on his face. The carer was shocked and had tears in her eyes, visibly moved.
Another concert I saw residents get up onto their feet and dance, transported to a time when they were agile and carefree. We amazed carers, shocked medical professionals and ourselves with the positive response music was making in the lives of these individuals with Alzheimers.
Music really is medicine and should be given out freely in large doses to all. It really is a sheer joy to make just a little difference to the lives of these suffers and we have music to thank.