Professor Paul Robertson, who is a concert violinist but also an academic who has studied music in dementia care, told AgeUk, ‘We tend to remain contactable as musical beings on some level right up to the very end of life.’
‘We know that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else. So it’s a case of first in, last out when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.’
In my own case, music was a way to connect with my father in his final stages of life – he was living with Alzheimer’s, which affected much of his day to day existence, but as a passionate trad jazz fan he could relive his happiest memories whenever I played him a bit of Kenny Ball or Fats Waller. Even in his last few days when he was seemingly unconscious, I sat by him with quiet jazz songs playing on my phone in the hope that he could still hear them.
Professor Robertson recalled many occasions where the connection brought through music has created a seemingly impossible breakthrough, such as in the case of a former church organist with advanced dementia. ‘She was very far gone, no language, no recognition. Someone started singing a hymn and this woman sat down at the piano, found the right key and accompanied the singer in perfect order.’
Care homes have long recognised the positive impact that music has on their residents, and organisation such as Singing for the Brain, Music for Life, Lost Chord, Golden Oldies and Live Music Now have made it possible for every care home in the country to have access to live musicians, both professional and amateur, most of them trained to deal with the special needs of an elderly, memory-impaired audience. Covid, of course, has put paid to much of this, but there is hope that as the pandemic recedes care homes will once again bring in these much-needed musical connections for their residents.
For those at home there is the brilliant Music for Dementia Radio which can be accessed by anyone with an online connection and which plays music on five different channels each organised by a range of birth years, to ensure the music is from an era the listener will recognise. And for further research on the subject visit musicfordementia.org.uk, which campaigns to highlight the value of music in dementia care.