We need to reimagine dementia care using the power of music

·4-min read
According to the NHS, one in 14 people over the age of 65 have dementia, and the condition affects 1 in 6 people over 80 (Tovertafel)
According to the NHS, one in 14 people over the age of 65 have dementia, and the condition affects 1 in 6 people over 80 (Tovertafel)

In March 2020, the volume was turned down on live music and the world became eerily silent. Many of us, including those of us who are musicians and music therapists, were not expecting what happened next. From singing on balconies to performances outside care home windows, music played a critical role in helping communities all over the world manage and deal with the impact of the pandemic.

As an unexpected consequence, we had a collective awakening to the power of music to support health and wellbeing through songs that made us feel close to loved ones, music that let us imagine we were someplace else and personal classics that reminded us that everything would be alright in the end. We were using music’s therapeutic benefits to help us manage and deal with something we had no control over.

This was particularly the case for people living with dementia. Paul Harvey, the 80-year-old musician living with dementia, brought us incredible joy with his improvisation “Four Notes”. He showed the world just how powerful music can be for people living with dementia.

Up until that point, great progress had been made across the UK through the Music for Dementia campaign to raise awareness of the importance of music in dementia care, but it was when we saw Paul as Paul the musician, not the 80-year-old with dementia, that the transformational power of music really struck a chord.

For several decades now, music has been used in dementia care to support and enhance quality of life. The evidence base for its effectiveness and impact has been growing, with evidence demonstrating that music therapy reduces agitation and the need for antipsychotic medication in people living with dementia.

In music, we have a tool that enables us to connect with people with dementia regardless of the severity of the condition because of the way music is processed across the whole brain and not just in one region. Therefore, as the condition progresses, music is still able to cut through and help people to connect and communicate.

Paul and his Four Notes have significantly helped to increase awareness and understanding of the power of music for those living with dementia, but awareness is not enough to ensure that the almost 1 million people in the UK with dementia have access to music as an integral part of their care.

As we begin to start recovering and rehabilitating from the pandemic, now is the time to think about what we can do better, and more of, in a post-Covid world. For people living with dementia, alongside providing a social care system that works for them, it is also about helping to make music an integral part of dementia care.

There are many people like Paul, either lifelong musicians or musical novices, who have had transformational experiences with music and dementia. Music can help someone to get up, washed and dressed in the morning or to have a meaningful connection in the here and now with a loved one. It needs to be acknowledged in the national dementia strategy as an integral way of enhancing and enriching the lives of those living with the condition. We need to reimagine dementia care using the power of music.

Without music being explicitly referenced in the strategy, it will remain classed as a nicety rather than a necessity by the care system, when it should be at the heart of good, personalised dementia care. Without this national strategy recognition, it will not become a standard part of dementia care and provision will remain patchy. It will only exist where there are advocates and supporters committed to making it a part of the care they provide.

Already delayed, there is an urgency for this strategy to be published and for the lives of those living with dementia and their carers to be prioritised as we begin to recover and rehabilitate from the pandemic. Time is not on our side. By 2040, the number of people expected to have dementia is projected to double to 1.6m. We won’t have a cure by then, but we do have music at our fingertips to help improve and enhance quality of life and quality of care.

Dr. Jason Karlawish, an Alzheimer’s disease researcher and clinician at the Penn Memory Centre in America said: “Dementia is a disease that is wrapped up in our humanity and therefore the humanities are essential to understand, make sense of, and live with this disease.”

That’s why we are calling on the government to deliver on its objectives, as set out in the Challenge on Dementia 2020. It states that the UK government wanted England to be the best country in the world for dementia care and support, and for people with dementia, and their carers and families to live.

So now is the time, especially this World Alzheimer’s Month, for all those who can to step up and play their part in putting dementia care at the top of the agenda again. It will mean people with dementia and those caring for them receive the quality of care and support they deserve, so they can live as well as possible. Let’s make sure music helps us lead the way in making this happen.

Grace Meadows is the campaign director for Music for Dementia

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