The effects of music are sometimes neglected in care homes, but it can play an important part in daily life and make a real difference to residents’ lives. Dan Parton reports.

In this article:

  1. Barbara’s story
  2. Music in you

Barbara's story

When Malcolm Pointon was in the final stages of dementia, he could barely communicate – he had lost his speech, understanding and was bedridden. But he still had one last medium through which he could communicate – music.

Malcolm’s wife, Barbara, noticed that when one of his favourite pieces was played, a tear would trickle down his face. Care workers would scold her for upsetting him, but Barbara knew that Malcolm was crying tears of joy, not pain.

“It was something he recognised and meant something to him,” Barbara told them. “Music got through when every other channel for communication was blocked.”

During those final months, Barbara would often play music – classical or jazz – to help Malcolm through the day. She says: “If he was depressed I’d try to find something upbeat and cheerful to play. If he was getting agitated I would put on some calming music – I used music in the place of drugs to alter his mood and make things better for him.”

But Barbara, a former lecturer in music at Cambridge University, found it was not only her husband who responded positively to music. Like her husband, Barbara is an accomplished pianist and would take along sheet music of ‘40s-‘50s tunes when she visited Malcolm in his care home, playing them on the piano in the communal lounge.

The effect was profound: “People just came out of the woodwork and found their way to the piano. What was remarkable was that even people who had hardly any speech at all – and what was there was gobbledegook – could sing the songs faultlessly and remembered all the words."

“Of course, music is closely allied to dancing and while some people were singing along to the tunes, others were shuffling around the floor and enjoying themselves.”

Music in you

For many people, the positive effects of music on older people – especially those with dementia – and for people with learning disabilities are tangible. Stuart Wood is Head Music Therapist of the Barchester Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity. He believes music makes people more co-ordinated, more in tune with themselves and more connected with other people.

He says: “Sometimes it helps restores old skills or abilities and sometimes people discover new things, even into their final years or the further stages of illness. Music therapy harnesses that ability of music to transform people.”

Stuart provides sessions to try to stimulate residents, from 1-to-1 work and small group sessions to larger activities such as singing events, which might also involve staff and residents’ friends and family.

His individual sessions sometimes focus on improvisation to create opportunities for communication or physical co-ordination, but can also involve teaching residents to play the piano or songwriting.

He says: “Rather than trying to find out what someone’s taste is and then play that to make them happy, it is more about finding the essence of a person and expressing that musically.

“Music is something you can do in a moment to try to create a certain impact, but musicality is a way you can be with people all the time. It’s about listening carefully and responding – which is the essence of person-centred care and making someone’s life better.”