Dementia: Music, dance and poetry can help some but not all – Helen Martin

BEFORE my mother died aged 98, she had spent seven years in a care home which specialised in ­dementia, writes Helen Martin.

Music and dance sessions are popular  for some  in care homes for the elderly. Picture: Getty
Music and dance sessions are popular  for some  in care homes for the elderly. Picture: Getty

Often when I visited in the afternoon, the activities co-ordinator was playing the piano, some residents were singing and some were dancing with each other, visitors or care assistants.

Music and dancing were also standard sections of parties, whether it was birthdays, St Patrick’s or St Andrew’s Day or any other cause for a hooley.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Last month, Dance For Your Life was an event run in Edinburgh by university professor Tara Spires-Jones of the UK Dementia Research Institute, with astrologer and Strictly Come Dancing star Russell Grant, and supported by Alzheimer charities. It was an entertaining and participatory “do” teaching how such exercise reduced the risks of dementia.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has now said music and dance should be “prescribed” to more dementia patients instead of doctors being too quick to “dish out pills”.

Hopefully he wasn’t trying to cut the medical budget, but he seemed to think music and dancing therapy was not widely adopted. It certainly happened in the past in many care homes and day centres here and hardly seems like something GPs can arrange. But it is also something that all families and carers should know, understand and try to provide.

There is one aspect which Professor Jones will be aware of, and which does not conform to a standard treatment process for everyone suffering from dementia. Some people don’t like it, my mum having been a classic example.

When musical entertainers or dancing parties were going on in her care home, she hated the noise and movement and had to move to another room. Music and dancing had never been a key part of her life. She was tone deaf. In her childhood she had no radio or source of music, until at 13 she went to a boarding school in the UK where religious music dominated.

Aural stimulation for her was poetry and the rhyming of words even if she didn’t understand the meaning as dementia developed. Yet, when her dementia was really advanced, watching people singing and dancing became a pleasant distraction in the dull, sleeping, boring, latter days of her life.

A few others in the care home didn’t like the “disturbance” either but the vast majority miraculously recalled tunes and words and enjoyed rhythmically moving as much as they could, even if that involved clapping or ­waving arms.

Just as with any other medical condition, not all humans react the same way to “treatment” or medical processes and protocol. For some with dementia any exercise will help, but lyrics, music and rhythm do add a mental boost and trigger memory.

One of the worst problems in our current care crisis (follow the Evening News campaign), is that the increasing shortage of staff now means many care homes have immobile, elderly dementia patients sitting propped in a chair with no stimulation at all for hours on end. The necessities of bathing, dressing, feeding, toileting, writing up notes and other vital duties don’t leave staff enough time to devote to residents. The same applies to home carers who have to move on to the next client rather than spare moments for tea and a chat.

If my day comes, I want music and dance!