Music & Dementia: A Powerful Tool For Support

In our blog article today, we’ll explore how music can support those living with dementia, and the distance we still have to travel in developing this approach in the UK.

The Big Picture

Nowadays, people in the UK are living longer than ever before. And as our population has aged, the incidence of dementia has risen rapidly.

Already in the UK, 850,000 people have dementia.

The economic cost of caring for these people stands at £23 billion a year, a figure that’s expected to triple by 2040.

These spiralling costs represent one of the biggest health and social care challenges the UK will face in the twenty-first century.

Although there is no long-term cure for dementia at present, there are clear, evidence-based approaches that can support those living with this illness.

Such approaches offer ways to not only improve the quality of life for those with dementia, to alleviate their symptoms, and to ease the strains on those caring for them, but even to reduce the long-term costs of care too.

The power of music

Music and emotions are linked in a powerful way.

We respond to music from a very early age – even before words and language develop - and this continues towards the end of our lives, when our ability to communicate might otherwise deteriorate.

Recent research describes how there seems to be a ‘memory bump’ for music; that is, people with dementia retain remarkably clear memories of the music they heard between the ages of ten and thirty.

In part, this is because music works through different parts of the brain to processes like language.

This means, when we hear music our minds are stimulated, unlocking memories, giving our grey matter a jolt, and reaching into parts of the brain where other forms of communication cannot.

People who may’ve earlier been withdrawn and apathetic are brought back to life upon hearing their favourite songs.

Where dementia puts people in a state of confusion, music lifts them out of this haze to offer respite and reprieve.

When communication may have otherwise been difficult, this reprieve allows for connection with loved-ones and carers again – the opportunity to express feelings and ideas, to interact with others, and even engage in physical activity through movement or dance.

All of this has real benefits beyond the moment.

As Alistair Burns, the NHS England’s Clinical Director for Dementia, writes:

"Music and memory have a powerful connection. Music lights up emotional memories – everyone remembers songs from their past – the first kiss, the song at a wedding, seeing their parents dance…

Music can have many benefits in the setting of dementia. It can help reduce anxiety and depression, help maintain speech and language, is helpful at the end of life, enhances quality of life and has a positive impact on carers”.

Alistair’s words reflect a growing body of scientific literature.

Recent research from the International Longevity Centre UK has found that music has significant physical and mental health benefits for those with dementia, helping them retain their speech and language skills longer, minimising the symptoms of dementia (e.g. agitation), and helping to tackle anxiety and depression.

By supporting those with dementia to communicate and connect, music helps to improve their emotional health and well-being, enhancing their quality of life and supporting their carers, and reducing social isolation that might otherwise be pervasive.

As the World Economic Forum notes, because the use of music in supporting those with dementia helps to alleviate their symptoms and improve their physical and mental well-being, this may help reduce the long-term costs of care too.

Growing Recognition

The value of this approach is increasingly being recognised.

The UK government - as articulated in the NHS long-term plan - wants to expand the use of music for dementia patients as part of its drive to expand ‘social prescribing’.

Meanwhile, numerous organisations around the country already work with these principles. From varying care home groups employing music therapists, to charitable projects such as Singing for the Brain, Music for Life, Lost Chord, Golden Oldies and Live Music Now making it possible for many care homes to have access to live musicians.

More broadly, the Music for Dementia 2020 campaign - with £1 million from the Utley Foundation - is seeking to raise public awareness and win backing for music to become an integral part of all dementia care pathways.

All of this progress is vital and positive, but it isn’t enough.

Gaps in access remain substantial. Even as 80% of people in care homes have dementia, only 5% of care homes have access to art and music resources.

This is at a time when there is a mounting crisis in elderly and disabled people’s services, where a lack of funding threatens the sector’s collapse.

Such pressures give music provision - and the arts generally - an even lower priority in care homes around the country. And this puts even greater pressure on an already over-stretched third sector to provide where others don’t.

This threatens that such gaps in access may remain a lot longer than we believe is right, necessary or sustainable.

Our approach

Over the last fifteen years, we’ve watched real progress in the provision of music to support those with dementia. But the UK still has a long way to go before this invaluable approach spreads as far as we believe is necessary.

Music services, interventions and therapies should be available to all those living with dementia.

It is a vital piece of the puzzle, not only in helping improve the physical and mental well-being of those with this illness and supporting carers and loved-ones, but in bringing down the longer-term costs of care to help provide a more sustainable healthcare model in the future too.

Part of our continuing effort to make this aspiration a reality has seen us recently launch our latest project.

Funded by Tesco’s Bags of Help and Groundwork UK, our Harlesden Project will bring together residents from a local Harlesden day centre and a local primary school as part of our latest intergenerational music programme running over the next month.

We’ve been working for nearly fifteen years to develop intergenerational music projects like this to support those living with dementia and learning difficulties, because we believe deeply in the value of such work.

If you like what we’re doing and would like to learn more, you can read about our work on our website, follow us on social media, or reach out directly if you’d like to support us or develop a similar project.