Once a week, volunteers from the Gloucestershire charity, Mindsong, visit the residents at Astley House and spend 45 minutes leading the group in song.
Mindsong aims to reach people with dementia through music, often using creative methods to ensure their voices are heard.
I entered the busy hallway and observed the care home staff patiently assisting some of the residents to move into the large living area. One lady walked slowly and cautiously using a frame and a nurse for support, others made their way briskly and independently, without hesitation.
I followed their lead and was surprised to find the vast room full-to-bursting with people eagerly awaiting the afternoon’s activity.
The atmosphere transformed
Joan Leyfield, the volunteer running the session, greeted each participant with a shake of the hand or a reassuring squeeze of the arm, expertly recalling each of the resident’s name from memory.
There were 18 people taking part in the session. Some appeared to be sleeping; others extremely tense and agitated. But one thing was clear: as soon as the music began, the atmosphere in the living room was transformed.
*Barbara, a resident with advanced dementia (who I’m told is nearing her hundredth birthday) was particularly cross at the idea of the singing class. She banged her walking frame at my feet in frustration as she entered the room.
“No, no, no,” she said firmly to the staff. Yet when Joan began singing a rendition of Morning has Broken, *Barbara burst into song, clapping her hands rhythmically.
“It really does brighten your day when you come,” Joan told me after the session. “I get a lot out of it, I love it. You always feel it was so worthwhile,” she continued.
When Joan retired as a special needs teacher, she was in search of some voluntary work to fill her time. She had cared for her mother who suffered from dementia during her final years and has sung in the Gloucester Choral Society for more than ten years; so volunteering for Mindsong seemed to be the perfect combination.
“We found out last week that one or two of the group even remember we’re coming when they’re told it’s time for the singing group on a Friday,” she said proudly.
I witness the sheer extent of the memory loss suffered by some of the dementia patients at Astley House.
One lady asks her husband on five occasions what day it is, in the space of just 15 minutes. He is visiting her in the care home and tries to leave her on numerous occasions, but she just won’t let him go.
The emotional effects of this condition, as well as the physical ones, are evident.
The severity of the residents’ dementia is incredibly varied and volunteers have to be able to interact with all of the participants, whatever their needs.
Mindsong provides training for their volunteers, both in music therapy techniques and in dementia.
I noticed that some individuals’ responses to the singing session were incredibly subtle.
One gentleman sat in the chair to my right had his eyes closed for the entire 45 minutes, yet during the chorus of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, his lips moved in time to the words – he remembered every lyric. But if I had not taken the time to look closely, I would have never known.
Joan ensured that every member of the group was given a moment of individual attention during the afternoon, by making eye contact, dancing, or simply holding their hand.
She often asks the group for song requests and old wartime tunes proved to be the most popular choice, and by far the most emotive.
We sang continuously for the whole session, occasionally led by the group as they grew in confidence.
*Barbara looked at me midway through the session and said: “Sing up grandma!” Her body language had become open and relaxed and she was singing at the top of her voice.
Reliant on fundraising
Anthea Holland, the director of Mindsong, told me that these singing groups are just one element of Mindsong’s work. The charity, which was constituted in its own right in 2012, also offers individual or small group music therapy sessions, as well as larger scale events in the community known as Together in Song.
During this twice yearly event, residents are given the opportunity to travel to Gloucester Cathedral and take part in a big group singing session, alongside dementia sufferers from other care homes in the region.
According to Anthea, the charity has now worked in more than 50 care homes and has a waiting list for their services.
Initially Mindsong was able to offer the sessions free to care homes, but in order to maintain a sustainable service, the care homes are now required to pay a fee.
“We receive no statutory funding,” Anthea said. “We rely on donors, fundraising and volunteers,” she added.
But the charity has received two one-off payments from Gloucestershire NHS and has been recognised as part of the local NHS dementia care strategy.
Dementia as a palliative care issue
The aging population is rapidly increasing and the number of people with dementia is set to rise to over 1 million by 2021, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. The charity also reports that 80% of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.
With this in mind, Anthea feels strongly that dementia should be viewed as a palliative care issue.
She acknowledges that we offer “very fine” services for palliative care in the UK, but feels that services often focus on the physical illnesses, rather than the mental health conditions:
“People with dementia who have to go in to a care home, are really going into a hospice in all but name. They have a condition that is likely to deteriorate, they are very frail. And while the dementia itself may not be fatal, it will be responsible for deaths and I think it can be justifiably seen as a life-limiting condition,” she told ehospice.
Anthea has ambitious plans for the future of Mindsong and the charity was recently commissioned to produce an opera that was based on the recorded words of dementia patients. The Bargee’s Wife was performed at the Three Choirs Festival in August and starred Barbara Dickson.
Andrea’s passion for music, and the pleasure that people with dementia are able to get from music, is obvious:
“Many people with dementia can still get a sense of wellbeing from music, and also a sense of self worth. It is actually something they can still do. Music can achieve some great things and we have seen some wonderful responses from people with dementia.”
Visit the charity’s website to watch a film which further explains the work of Mindsong.
*The names in this article have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the care home residents.