Music helps to rekindle memories for dementia patients

Cefni Hospital, Llangefni. Music in Therapy sessionn for dementia patients with Christine Eastwood. Pictured: Resident Blodyn Thomas with Volunteer Gloria Williams


Music therapy is helping to rekindle lost memories for people living with dementia.

The hour-long weekly sessions at Anglesey’s Cefni Hospital, run by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board’s music therapist Christine Eastwood, are achieving amazing results.

She uses music to invite patients to lively engagement and interaction, helping to minimise typical symptoms of dementia like apathy, anxiety, restlessness and depression that make people feel isolated and unwell.

Christine’s report on patients’ responses, engagement and observed abilities assists the medical team in putting together a long term prognosis for individuals.

She says that one of its most positive outcomes has been the way that music therapy allows people to gain pleasure from little moments of musical recognition, rekindling treasured memories and a sense of identity in elderly patients, even including some suffering late stage dementia.

Christine said: “People who are highly impaired by dementia are often still able to respond to music and remember songs; some patients may struggle to talk but are still able to sing, remember song lyrics, whistle, clap, tap their feet or be intrigued to produce a sound on an instrument.

“It can be moving to see the music act as a trigger evoking engagement and emotions in our patients as if bringing people back to life.”

“Families who’ve witnessed this have told us how comforting it is to see their loved ones inspired to sing and enjoy the music.”

Volunteer helper Alun Williams, a keen singer and member of four North Wales choirs, has been astounded by the way music can stimulate people who are so strongly affected by dementia that they seem to take little interest in their surroundings anymore.

He said that music can reanimate patients’ personalities in ways that doctors and even family members had thought had gone forever.

Alun, who is joined by his wife Gloria at the sessions, said: “I really think these type of sessions would be worthwhile doing every day.

“I’ve been helping here at the Anglesey workshop for more than two years, and I admit at first I was very cynical. I didn’t really think the music would have such an impact. Then I encountered one patient whom I knew. He initially showed me no eye contact or recognition, but I sat next to him and I saw for myself how his face started to light up as the music started.

“As he was singing he was smiling. I was surprised when he looked me right in the eye and told me how much he had enjoyed it. I have since seen similar responses in other patients.”

Pensioner John Parker, who struggles to speak, was recently moved to tears as the group sang an old favourite, You Are My Sunshine.

And fellow patient, Blodwen Thomas, 83, had a similar reaction to the Elvis Presley hit Love Me Tender, which had a special meaning for her. Another of her favourites is Amazing Grace, which the group often sings for her.

She said: “I love music and I love to dance. I can’t today as my leg is aching but some of the songs remind me of times when I used to dance with my late husband. I miss him a lot.”

Clive Byng, a retired plasterer, said he enjoyed singing and listening to music when he was younger. At the sessions Clive’s passion for music is obvious, and he enthusiastically joins in most songs and taps his feet to the beat. He plays percussion instruments which Christine takes along, including tambourine, African drum, maraca, Irish drum and basket rattles.

Christine said: “Clive has a great sense of rhythm and most music literally moves him as it goes straight to his feet. His daughter told me that he loves listening to music and watching him during our sessions it is easy to tell he has been involved with music in his past.”

Clive laughed: “I wasn’t a professional or anything, I was a plasterer. But I liked to have a go at singing with my friends and playing a few instruments. I like Elvis, and a bit of rock and roll. I also like Bert Weedon. I love Christine’s sessions. I come to them every week. They make me think of happy times.”

The sessions, held on Thursdays, are quite informal and open to all the hospital patients, plus family members if they wish to take part.

Christine leads the group with her guitar. She said: “We sit in a circle and always open with a musical welcome to everyone by singing a verse to each person in the group. Singing people’s names usually brings people to attention and makes them aware of the invitation to take part.

“We then usually move on to a couple of action songs. I usually choose well known traditional songs like My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean or The Hokey Cokey, which are easy to combine with some gentle physical exercise. This is great for getting people in the mood to sing and interact with each other.

“At this point the group is usually ready for some activity in the here and now, which can mean that people have the attention to learn a new song, to contribute spontaneous ideas to a theme, make up a personal rhyme and play instruments. After these high energy efforts the group can relax and sing songs chosen by individual participants.”

Originally from Germany, Christine has lived in North Wales many years and worked for more than a decade as a music therapist in forensic mental health in the rehabilitation of mentally disordered offenders

As part of her current role she has set up an innovative project providing a specialised singing programme for patients with chronic respiratory conditions, called Singing for Breathing, with a new group due to open soon in Bangor.

Christine also leads a volunteer hospital choir in Ysbyty Gwynedd, which tours wards singing for and with patients.

Elizabeth Aylett is arts in health & wellbeing programme manager in BCUHB, which provides acute and community healthcare services to the six counties of North Wales. She said Christine’s work was a vital asset, and feedback on the dementia project was extremely positive.

She said: “The group sessions at Cefni Hospital are an excellent example of the positive contribution music therapy can bring to the dementia assessment hospital setting.

“The benefits are clear and we are working towards increasing the availability of this service within the health board.”