Music is fundamental to the way human beings communicate and express themselves. As babies, before we can speak, we respond to sound and rhythm. Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007) tells lots of fascinating stories about how music has revealed the workings of the mind in people who have suffered illness or injury. Even when spoken language is lost, people often still respond to music. Music can therefore be harnessed as a means of expression, feeling and interaction and can be a powerful way to communicate and care for people with dementia.
Paul Harvey, a composer from Buxted, in Sussex, was diagnosed with dementia late last year but has continued to be able to play piano pieces from memory - as well as create new ones. In October 2020 videos of Mr Harvey playing the piano were widely shared and he became a social media celebrity, inspiring a huge fundraising effort for research into the disease.
The benefits of music
According to Dementia UK, music can have the following benefits even for those who don’t play an instrument:
Music helps people with dementia express feelings and ideas.
Music can help the person connect with others around them.
It can encourage social interaction and promotes activity in groups.
It can reduce social isolation.
It can facilitate physical exercise and dance or movement.
Music can be a useful way to change somebody’s mood, especially during personal care.
For instance, if a person diagnosed with dementia resists your efforts to help them get dressed, playing soothing music or a favourite song can help lessen any distress.
Playing soothing music may inspire an emotional reaction. Playing music can tap into powerful memories and emotions. A favourite song, a film theme tune, or a nursery rhyme, can have unexpected impacts.
In this video from December 2018, we hear from patients about their memories of Christmases past, and Lead Dementia Practitioner Rachel Price talks about elderly care in the hospitals at this time of year. There’s also a very special rendition of ‘White Christmas’ at the end.
Former concert pianist and music teacher Paul Harvey, who has dementia, at home in East Sussex with his son Nick. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
Dementia UK provide the following advice for engaging people with dementia in music:
• Choose music that the person likes. If you aren’t sure, look to see if they have a record or tape collection. If not, investigate what were the popular musicians and songs from an era in their youth and give it a try. Internet services such as Spotify have lots of music you can listen to for free, through your computer (these also play adverts however, which can be loud, so keep an eye on the screen).
• Watch to see how the person reacts. If they seem uncomfortable or distressed, turn it off and take a break for a while, before trying some different music at a different time. If they respond positively then use the music to engage with them. Do they tap their fingers? Or hum along? You can try doing so too.
• Start with gentle, quiet music. But make the music a focal point, so consider putting a record, tape or CD on in front of the person and adjusting the volume as applicable.
• Music can awaken negative emotions as well as positive ones, so watch the person closely for any signs of discomfort and turn the music off if you think it is causing undue distress. Expressing sadness may be a normal reaction to a strong memory or association to the music and just sitting with the person during this time may be the best response.
More information can be found at their website.