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Alzheimer's disease health centre

Dementia - Singing and dementia

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Singing groups offer people with dementia, and their carers, a chance to socialise and sing with other people in the same situation. The Alzheimer's Society runs 'Singing for the Brain' groups in England.

Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) that is associated with a progressive decline of the brain and its functions. These include:

  • thinking
  • language
  • memory
  • understanding
  • judgment

There are a number of effective strategies that can help people to cope better with their symptoms and improve their quality of life. These may include medication, psychological treatments (such as cognitive stimulation exercises to improve memory) and exercise therapy.

There is no scientific evidence that singing is an effective treatment, but it can improve the quality of life for people with dementia. There is anecdotal evidence (people talking about their experiences) from people with dementia and carers that it helps them to feel better.

Responding to music

The aims of the Singing for the Brain groups are to improve confidence, self-esteem and quality of life. Chreanne Montgomery-Smith, of the Alzheimer's Society, helped to devise the Singing for the Brain sessions in 2003 after noticing how some people with dementia in a nursing home responded to singing.

Chreanne explains: "I started doing a range of activities in the nursing home. One of them was a quiz game, which involved playing familiar tunes. The first week I did it nobody sang, and the second week a few people joined in. By the third week, everybody was singing.

"One lady sang so much - she knew every song in the quiz, and remembered, and sang them all. She felt very proud. And she was somebody who didn't know her own name. It made me realise that people with dementia had a special ability to remember songs. It seemed to me a way of giving people confidence."

Getting together to sing

With the help of a music educator, Dr Nicholas Brennan, Chreanne set up a pilot singing group for three weeks to see whether people with dementia and their carers would find it worthwhile. People with dementia were able to recall songs that they knew, and to learn a song they had never heard before.

Feedback from carers and questionnaires after the pilot groups showed that carers and people with dementia were enjoying the sessions. There are now around 30 Singing for the Brain groups across the country. They are free and open to anyone who has been diagnosed with dementia.

"Singing for the Brain is mainly about engaging people and helping them to feel that life is worthwhile," says Chreanne. "I think the benefits are in confidence, self-esteem and friendship. Even if people with dementia can't talk, they may be able to sing, whistle, clap or tap their feet."

Meeting other people

It's easy to feel isolated and alone if you or a family member has dementia. But keeping in contact with other people is good for people with dementia because it helps to keep them active and stimulated.

The singing sessions also offer carers a valuable opportunity to meet others in the same situation, and to share advice and support. Singing for the Brain also gives carers and people with dementia something fun to do together.

"Dementia can make both people feel terribly guilty about their time being spoilt by it, and they both regret it for the other's sake," says Chreanne. "But if they do things that they enjoy together, that burden can be lifted. So it's a very important way of keeping going."

Each Singing for the Brain session starts with warm-up exercises, which include physical movements. This might be rolling a bean bag up one leg, passing it to your other hand and rolling it down the other, or clapping along to a song. All kinds of songs are used, and there are percussion instruments, such as drums, that people can play.

Sometimes, choosing a certain song can make all the difference. "I remember a very inspiring instance where a lady who used to come didn't interact for some time, and she was quite bent over," says Chreanne. "Then suddenly we picked the right song and it was like a key. She became upright and danced, and offered to play the drums."

Finding a group

Singing for the Brain sessions take place in community buildings, such as church halls. To find a group near you, call the Alzheimer's Society on 020 7423 3500. If there is no Singing for the Brain session in your area, you can ask your GP, local authority or charities such as Age UK whether they know of any singing local groups.

"You can always sing at home," adds Chreanne. "Sing along to a CD, or to hymns or other songs on the telly."

Medical Review: May 22, 2010

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