Church helping patients fight dementia through hymns

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A SCOTTISH church is helping support dozens of people with dementia through the medium of music.

The congregation of Forfar East and Old Church of Scotland has been hosting a weekly music cafe for the last six years - and it has gained a reputation among healthcare workers.

Every Monday around 40-50 people gather together to sing their hearts out.

As their voices ring out with the words of old favourites and well-known hymns, the reaction results in feet-tapping and faces lighting up.

The hour-long sessions see people who might not speak much at all outside of the cafe often singing songs all the way through.

Rev Barbara Sweetin, who started the music cafe when she began her ministry at Forfar East and Old, said: “It gives people with dementia a very caring environment where they can feel safe.

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“They come with their carers and there is singing, talking and a safe place to share those old memories that they all have. It is really good to see people come alive and enjoy themselves in good company.

“It’s a good support for carers and I think every one of us comes away feeling happy and uplifted.”

Rev Sweetin had heard of ‘Singing for the Brain’ and wondered if the church could do something like that.

She consulted with church elder Pat Brodlie, a dementia expert who works for Alzheimers Scotland, and they created a partnership that, she says, has been “crucial to getting it right”.

Mrs Brodlie gave the minister and church volunteers a two-week training, that taught them the dos and don’ts of dementia support.

Rev Sweetin says: “We learned how to communicate better. We don’t raise our voices or move too abruptly and we are careful to respect people’s personal space.

“We might say it’s a great day today, or you are looking well today, but we don’t ask ‘What did you do yesterday?’ or ‘What happened last weekend?’”

The music cafe is now seen as part of the Church’s identity in the Forfar community, and the volunteers have gone on to add a dance session every second week—the Friday Fling.

Each week at the cafe, four of the 20 volunteers from the church are on hand to meet, greet and seat the singers.

One of them is usually Margaret Anderson, who sits at the piano playing songs such as Pack up Your Troubles, Daisy Daisy, I belong to Glasgow, My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, Jesus Loves me, and many more.

Every session finishes with the same hymn - One more step along the world I go.

The music cafe is open to everyone - they don’t have to be a church member, have dementia or be a carer to attend.

People come from across Angus, and include several carers whose partners have now died from their illness.

Sally Shepherd’s husband David died in 2013, but she still comes to support other carers.

She said: “I like the singing and I come for the company. The actual act of singing itself is beneficial.

“You could see the pleasure David got from it and that was proof. But it is the friendship as well and getting out of where they are living. Coming here is great.”

Sally’s friend Gladys Ferrier, who lost her husband 50 years ago as a young woman, says she comes to enjoy the good company.

She added: “I never used to like Mondays, but now I look forward to Mondays.”

Sheena Gray comes with her husband Stewart, who has memory loss, yet is still able to sing all the words to the songs.

She said: “It’s great to come here. It’s very good. We’ve been coming since it started.

“You meet other people in your situation. And the fact that the women cater for us with teas, biscuits and so on is so helpful.

“So coming to church and coming here and Stewart comes to the dancing on a Friday too. This is our social activity, the main activity of our week.”

Rev Margaret Shuttleworth, minister at Sauchie and Colesnaughton, said she has been inspired to do something along the lines of a music cafe in her own parish.

She added: “It is incredible to see people sitting with their heads down, but the moment the music starts they lift their heads and start singing. To be able to offer this to the community is so exciting.”

The focus on dementia support has led to all kinds of other changes for the church, including installing plasma screens with blue words on a yellow background, to removing barriers and using pictures as signposts instead of words.

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