A newly launched campaign, Music for Dementia 2020, is calling for music to be made available for everyone living with dementia. Fronted by radio DJ Lauren Laverne, the campaign aims to make music in all its rich and varied forms, everything from playlists to music therapy to be made available as part of dementia care.
We spoke to Grace Meadows, the Programme Director for Music for Dementia 2020, to find out how musicians can get involved in the campaign and help improve quality of life for people living with dementia.
It’s predicted that there will be 1 million with dementia in the UK by 2021. Taking this and the prospect of an ageing population into account, are campaigns like yours a necessity?
Absolutely. Lots of people know about dementia and lots of people know about music, but not enough people know about the impact music can have on people living with dementia and those caring for them. We don’t have a pharmacological answer to dementia at present – maybe that will come with time as research methods develop.
However, in the meantime, we have a responsibility to support people living with dementia by improving their quality of life and in turn supporting those who care for them. If we can make a difference to these people’s lives through music, we need to do it, because right now it’s the only answer. We’ve got to do this in an easy and meaningful way.
We all have musical soundtracks to our lives. If I asked someone to describe their life to me through music, it would be fascinating. We all have our own musical identity which is based on several factors, such as where you grew up, who you grew up with and what events took place in your life. That’s why we’re keen to ensure that the music dementia patients have access to is personalised to them as much as possible, because that will benefit them the most.
How do you go about establishing musical preferences, since some dementia patients perhaps aren’t able to express which artist or genre they most relate to?
We liaise a lot with the families of people living with dementia and make sure we ask the right questions to establish how we can help them. It’s important for everyone to play a part in their care – for example, if a patient was unable to communicate verbally, we would make sure a family member and a care worker sat in on their sessions. This way, they’re all part of the person’s musical care.
The other strategy we use is improvised music. This is where the work of music therapists comes to the fore – they’re able to measure a patient’s engagement through their gestures, body language, eye contact and vocalisation. So, even though they may not have verbal skills, they can use other methods of communication to indicate whether they’re enjoying the music you’re playing.
This is very important, as 93% of our communication is non-verbal and 55% of this non-verbal communication is through body language. Therefore, we need to do everything we can to keep giving these people a voice, verbally or otherwise.
In the broadest sense, what are you hoping to achieve with this campaign?
We want to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia through music. We need to ensure that everyone living with dementia has access to music and that this music is available to them in the right way, at the right time, delivered by the right person. This gives them a voice that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
People living with dementia get a great deal of medical and personal care and conversations are often happening about them but not with them. However, musical interactions give them a chance to contribute and interact. Dementia might take away their autonomy, but music turns that around and gives them back a sense of identity.
Music for dementia is increasingly becoming part of the national conversation, thanks to the increased awareness of it and the positive effect it can have. In turn, music is starting make massive inroads in this conversation, as shown through Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure and through the announcement of Lauren Laverne as our ambassador. This is wonderful to see and we need to continue building on this momentum.
How much of a coup was it to get Lauren Laverne on board and what has she been like to work with?
We’re absolutely thrilled that Lauren is our ambassador. She’s such a perfect fit for the campaign – not only is she well respected across the music industry, she’s also a passionate music-lover. You hear that every morning on her breakfast show and the way she speaks about music on Desert Island Discs says everything to us about the type of person we wanted to front our campaign. She ticks all the boxes for an ambassador, and she’s a pleasure to work with.
Lauren is very professional and understands how much this campaign means to everyone, so we couldn’t ask for more in terms of what she brings to the table.
We’ll be co-ordinating a lot of activity with Lauren throughout the rest of the year. I obviously can’t confirm what this activity will include just yet, but what I can say is that we’re very excited to have her on board!
In terms of the day-to-day side of the campaign, what activities do you undertake with dementia patients and what benefits are these proven to have?
We have a wonderful network of practitioners who are on the ground day in day out, using music in a variety of ways. This encompasses everything from creating playlists, to singing in a choir, to attending music making groups, to music therapy.
The work they do isn’t just at care homes – they also visit hospices and people’s homes. There’s a vast array of work going on in different settings. When we think about the inherent flexibility of music, this is how we see it being used with people living with dementia – flexibly, and in a personalised way.
This enables people with dementia to have that ‘in the moment’ connection with somebody or something, which dementia strips from you. I’ve heard of several instances whereby someone who doesn’t really talk to others will sing for an hour, and their capacity for speech remains after the session, which can be incredible.
We also hear countless stories of people’s mood being improved, and of them being calmer and less agitated. Essentially, their energy is being channelled in a different way. Where there’s agitation, depression or anxiety, we’re finding that these emotions are transferred into a different kind of emotional experience.
Incorporating music into everyday activities also makes people living with dementia more willing to take part in other activities. For example, if they’ve got a physiotherapy programme, they might be more willing to carry out that programme if music is used as a motivator. Again, this is where the work of music therapists really comes to the fore.
You’ve no doubt come across some truly inspiring case studies of people with dementia whose lives have been transformed through music. Can you give us some examples of these?
In a general sense, seeing communities of people come together because music has been used thoughtfully and sensitively is very rewarding. In so many instances, music has brought about sustained change in a person’s life and has radicalised how people think about care.
Quite often, I’ve seen people who were very isolated being given opportunities to be part of something bigger and reconnect with the world around them – it’s quite extraordinary. Seeing the reactions of their loved ones is what makes my job so worthwhile.
In terms of specific case studies, my uncle has severe dementia. He was an incredible jazz musician in Northern Ireland and played live with bands most nights and his daughter (my cousin) is also a musician.
She hadn’t made the association between music and dementia – it was only when she realised that I’m a music therapist that she asked me ‘Can music help Dad with his dementia?’. I hadn’t even thought about that and it made so much sense!
From the moment a music therapist worked with my uncle, my cousin said it was like having him back in the room. He picked up his instruments again and he was back. She’s seen him decline in many areas of his life, but this is the one thing that she can hold onto, which is priceless.
He knows who he is through music and there are people having these kinds of experiences all over the country, every day.
For any musicians that are reading this article, how can they get involved in the campaign?
The first thing they can do is visit our website and read the materials on there. They can also follow us on social media, because being able to help spread the word is invaluable to us. They can also start having conversations with care providers, dementia services in their local area and, of course, other musicians.
Live Music Now have also put together a toolkit to help musicians get started. This gives them all the information they need about what happens in a care home, the support they’ll receive and how they can register their interest.
There are lots of options available to musicians from different backgrounds, depending on their preferences. Some musicians want to work with people who have been recently diagnosed, while some want to work with choirs, some want to help provide end-of-life care.
It’s important that musicians have an idea of what they want to do and have conversations about how they can support people in their area of interest.
There’s a quote on your website which says: “If you can hold your own in a care home, the stage of the Albert Hall or Wembley Arena won’t daunt you at all!”. What kind of environments can musicians expect and what skills do you look for in those who work with dementia patients?
The environments can vary, depending on the needs of the people. If musicians are working with people who have severe dementia or are approaching the end of their life, it’s not going to be a particularly bubbly environment, necessarily. Therefore, the pace of things might be slower and gentler.
It also depends on what kind of environment is already in existence. Some care homes might be really receptive to working with a musician, whereas some might not have much experience in this area, so might need some support with coming on board with having a musician as part of their team.
Needless to say, working in dementia care settings can be challenging, given the nature of the condition, so the onus is on the musician to be sensitive and read the dynamics of the room. The mood in a room changes moment to moment, as it does in many settings.
The work requires a lot of emotional investment, and I say that from first-hand experience. Therefore, musicians need to look after themselves when they’re working with people who are living with dementia. If they’re not familiar with this, there are organisations out there which can advise them on how to communicate with people living with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Association and Carers UK.
How can getting involved in this campaign benefit musicians in their personal and professional development?
It not only helps musicians broaden their skillset, but also share their skills in new and exciting ways. For instance, they may be very good at performing, but may not have had many opportunities to share these skills outside of their professional circles. Working with people living with dementia gives them a chance to share these skills with more people, while making a life-changing difference.
As well as broadening their professional profile, musicians can get a different sense of fulfilment through performing and working with people living with dementia. A lot of musicians tend to work in one way for quite a long time and sometimes change can be a powerful tool for enhancing their personal and professional development.
Musicians are very fortunate, because having a skill that enables you to support people living with dementia is hugely satisfying. Lots of people are passionate about supporting people with dementia, but unfortunately not everyone can provide this support – but musicians can and that’s something unique.
Grace joined the Music For Dementia 2020 campaign as Programme Director in 2018, having previously worked for the British Association for Music Therapists. Alongside this, Grace is a music therapist for the National Health Service working with children and families in an acute London hospital.
Visit the Music For Dementia website to find out more about the opportunities available to musicians.