Take Note: How music can help those with demential and mental health difficulties

Patients with demential and mental health difficulties are responding remarkably well to a series of programmes that help them become themselves again through song, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

Take Note: How music can help those with demential and mental health difficulties

Patients with demential and mental health difficulties are responding remarkably well to a series of programmes that help them become themselves again through song, writes Helen O’Callaghan.

Liz Ryan never paid much attention to the song, Molly Malone. But the singer finds it’s the one song that always gets a response even when people have advanced dementia.

“Even if they don’t sing, they’ll tap their hands, move their feet.”

Ryan started singing seven years ago for dementia patients through the National Concert Hall’s (NCH) Health and Harmony (music for dementia) project. She has also been singing at the Tea Dance Tunes Dementia Friendly Concerts in the NCH since they began in 2017. She believes when somebody with dementia is able to recall a song and sing it, it gives them a brief moment to be themselves again.

“A song’s personal. It’s your memory. If you can remember it, you bring back a sense of who you are for just those few moments. So much is progressively taken away from someone with dementia — with a song they get a brief glimpse of autonomy once again.”

When she arrives at a dementia care centre or to sing at the Tea Dance Concerts, Ryan comes with “a whole load of music prepared” but she goes the way of the floor.

“I’m never short of a soloist. Sometimes they sing religious songs from church services or Que Será, Será or Under the Bridges of Paris. Danny Boy’s a huge favourite.

Liz Ryan: ”They say music’s the one thing that permeates all of the brain centres. It’s with us from cradle to grave interwoven into every meaningful moment of our lives.”
Liz Ryan: ”They say music’s the one thing that permeates all of the brain centres. It’s with us from cradle to grave interwoven into every meaningful moment of our lives.”

"They say music’s the one thing that permeates all of the brain centres. It’s with us from cradle to grave interwoven into every meaningful moment of our lives in every culture.”

Ryan has often gone into dementia care centres and found one or two patients, their eyes open but they’re very far away — they can’t see you.

“If I know what that client’s song is — for example It’s a Long Way to Tipperary — I’ll say their name and keep repeating it in the song. I’ll place myself at their eye level and sing very gently to them. It has been my experience that, slowly, they start to re-inhabit their face — and it’s the most wonderful thing! It’s like they moved away and they’ve come back in. I can’t sustain it, but even for those few moments they come back.”

In Ashbourne, Co Meath, Frank Loughran’s wife, Pauline, 73, is living with dementia. A physiotherapist first spotted it when Pauline became disoriented at a healthy bones class. It was a year later before the real signs of dementia were fully visible.

“I have to watch Pauline all the time, show her how to do simple things,” says Frank. “She’ll pick up food with her fingers, so I show her a fork and what it’s for. I help her dress, shower, get ready for bed.” Pauline’s always smiling and happy at the Tea Dance Tunes Concerts.

“The music starts. She’ll sing away with the songs. She remembers them — songs like She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain. She doesn’t sing out loud but I see her mouth moving with the songs. Music was very important in both our lives. Pauline’s always in great form after the concerts.”

Ali Rochford. Picture:  Mark Stedman
Ali Rochford. Picture: Mark Stedman

Health and Harmony brings musical performance to people living with dementia, their families and their carers in 12 centres nationally. It’s one of four key projects delivered by NCH under their programme of music for Health and Wellbeing, which officially launched recently.

The other projects are Music in Mind (music for mental health), Music in Children’s Hospitals: Kids’ Classics (music in paediatric healthcare) and Music in National Rehabilitation Hospital (music for recovery from acquired injury).

“We believe the benefits of engaging, playing and listening to music go beyond the initial enjoyment and have deeper, more profound benefits,” says Nigel Flegg, head of Learning and Participation at NCH. “We like to use music and its power to effect a broad range of positive outcomes in people’s health and wellbeing.”

Flegg recalls a music session in Crumlin Children’s Hospital. “One little girl was crying, not feeling well at all, sitting on her mother’s knee. She didn’t engage at the beginning. The musicians are very skilled at dealing with children who are upset. She gradually started showing an interest.

“They handed her a little wooden frog with a serrated back that you scraped with a stick in time to the music. By the end, she was smiling and chatting — the music had brought her out of herself. You can’t tell how long the effect lasts. What I know is: that moment made that part of that day better for her.”

Stuart McKeever. Picture:  Mark Stedman
Stuart McKeever. Picture: Mark Stedman

Ali Rochford, in her 30s, is lead on Wicklow-based pilot programme Social Prescribing for Health & Wellbeing.

“Social prescribers are new to Ireland. I link people up with resources in the community,” says Ali, who has experienced significant mental health difficulties. “I was accessing what I could — seeing a psychiatrist, attending counselling, I’d been on medication. Nothing was really changing things for me or moving me forward.”

While attending Rathmines-based Gateway project, a social and peer support group for people who have experienced/are currently experiencing mental health difficulties, she began participating in a NCH Music in Mind pilot. It was a drumming class, perfect for Ali who’d always been interested in drumming. It was a six to eight-week course but Ali continues to attend this teacher’s drumming class at NCH.

“It’s something so different to the rest of my life. It gets me into completely different headspace. It’s almost like meditation. That constant chatter of thoughts in my head falls away once I get into the rhythm, when I’m focused on my hands and my body and watching other people as a group, making sure I’m keeping up with what they’re doing.

“You can get a really good connection with people but with drumming, you can’t talk so it takes away that pressure. I feel so much more at ease, at peace and relaxed in myself afterwards.”

Ali’s mental health difficulties are well-managed now. She has better skills to look after herself.

I have no doubt music promotes mental wellness

At the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), two musicians — Aingeala de Búrca plays classical and baroque violin, while Deirdre O’Leary sings and plays clarinet and bass clarinet — run musical workshops and give patients different instruments and, as a group, the patients create music.

“There’s quite a lot of cognitive benefit,” says NRH recreational therapist Stuart McKeever. It enhances memory and concentration. It works on their functional decision-making and organisational skills.”

Other times, the musicians hold small concerts for patients and families (“it helps prevent social isolation”) and they also select wards and play at patients’ bedsides. The range of music is diverse – jazz, classical, traditional Irish.

“Younger patients might want them to play Coldplay or David Bowie in a classical version,” says McKeever, who confirms feedback, not just from patients but from family and staff, is overwhelmingly positive.

“They comment on how the music lifts the general atmosphere, picks up people’s moods. I hear often from staff that patients are more motivated to participate in their therapies after being part of a musical performance or workshop.”

NCH CEO Simon Taylor says the NCH vision is to ensure everyone in Ireland has a chance to benefit from engagement with music far beyond the National Concert Hall walls. “We’re hugely proud of the Health and Wellbeing Programme and its impact on thousands of lives across Ireland. It operates across 20 counties and really demonstrates music’s unique ability to enhance quality of life.”

Visit www.nch.ie.

Tea dance dementia-friendly concert held every two months at NCH with vocalist Liz Ryan and special guests performing popular ballads/seasonal songs/light opera; people living with dementia, their carers/families welcome; next tea dance July 26.

World WellBeing Week (June 24-28) shines light on charities/social enterprises working hard in their own specific areas of wellbeing.

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