The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has recently spoken out and said that dementia sufferers should be given music or dance therapies as part of their personalised NHS care. Speaking following a reception hosted by the Prince of Wales at Clarence House, he commented “There is increasing evidence suggesting music can bring calm to people with dementia by reducing agitation and supporting those affected to cope better with symptoms…In particular, I want to combat over-medicalisation and dishing out pills when it’s not in the best interests of the patient.”

Recent research agrees with Mr Hancock concluding that singing and listening to music can really help people with dementia, sometimes even reducing the need for medication. Music may inspire an emotional reaction, it can help someone with dementia express feelings and ideas or it may just be a way to get them involved in a group or social activity. We know that singing releases the hormone endorphin, which is associated with feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin – another hormone released during singing which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. Singing in a group is a great experience for anyone but particularly those with dementia. When we sing, musical vibrations move through us, altering our physical and emotional landscape and group singing delivers that in spades. One of the groups that aims to harness this awesome power is the Alzheimer’s Society who have created their ‘Singing for the Brain’ groups. These specialist sessions aim to bring people with dementia together in a friendly and stimulating environment to do fun vocal warm ups and sing a wide variety of familiar and new songs.

Dancing is also something that can be done to help that costs very little or nothing at all.  Remembering routines and moving in time to the music help to simultaneously provide physical and cognitive stimulation. Keeping people active for as long as possible is one of the best alternative therapies available and can stop sufferers from becoming needlessly over medicalised. Dancing can put a smile on the face of dementia sufferers whilst helping to maintain their health, providing a wonderfully interactive experience for those who can still manage to be active. Dance for Dementia sessions are available at various dance studios around the country – Rambert studios in Lambeth, London provide free monthly workshops to people in the early stages of dementia. Each workshop consists of warm-ups, partner and group exercises, dance and a chance to ‘explore steps from Rampart’s repertoire to stimulate movement and memory’.

There are a number of great schemes out there already to give people with dementia access to music and dance – but many more are needed. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every region of the country had music groups and dance sessions to help make the lives of dementia sufferers better? Music possess a unique ability to reach the memories that may be lost to dementia patients – music is neurologically special in the way that it stimulates many parts of the brain at once. This means that even if parts of the brain are damaged, music can still reach other parts. The launch of Music for Dementia 2020 – a national campaign to make music available for everyone living with the condition by 2020 gives us hope that this could soon be a reality.

One of the schemes currently available is Lost Chord, a charity that provides monthly music concerts to residential care homes. Lost Chord regularly visits homes in South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, London, Cardiff, Coventry, Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, providing more than 100 live music sessions a month. Helena Muller the founder-directory says it’s essential to make regular visits to the same homes, so the musicians can build a relationship with the residents, and get to know their names. Lost Chord provides music sessions to 130 homes at the moment – a number that will hopefully be increased if the Health Secretary’s vision becomes reality.

Something that can be done at home for those who might not be able to access regular sessions in their area, is Playlist for Life. This organisation wants everyone with dementia to have a unique, personal playlist – all the tunes that are most deeply attached to memories and emotions, gathered together in one place.  The website is simple to use and provides an easy way to create music stimulus at home. The website gives you all the tools you need to create a bespoke playlist from music across the decades. If that seems too daunting a task the BBC have a great website called BBC Music Memories which aims to help connect dementia patients with songs from the past. The website allows users to browse more than 1800 excerpts from songs, classical works and TV theme tunes from the last 100 years in order to create a shortlist of songs to download in to your perfect playlist.

So far the policy of ‘prescribing’ alternative therapies to those suffering with dementia has not been widely adopted, but as the numbers of Dementia cases grow year on year, finding ways to live well with the disease and halt its progression will become more and more important to those who responsibility it is to care for them.

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