Carers singing can aid communication in late stage dementia

Carers singing can aid communication in late stage dementia

I have a dream that all carers of people with dementia sing whilst going about their tasks

Singing has always been part of my life – I sang at school, at church, at university, in various choirs and amateur operatic groups, I have been a Musical Director for a children’s operatic group, I ran a music franchise for babies and toddlers. I sing whilst I am shopping, cooking, cleaning. I even used to end up singing in board meetings – though this was not always appreciated! In short I have never stopped singing and I am always happy when I am singing.

It is no surprise then that when I came back from New Zealand to help my sister look after our Mother who had dementia that I was forever singing and using music to communicate with her. I sang to her even as she died.

Music is good for people with dementia

It is generally accepted these days that music has a beneficial effect on people with dementia. You may have seen the ‘Song a Minute Man’, Teddy McDermott, and his son having fun singing together in the car and there have been many instances talked about where music has stimulated memories and brought people with later stage dementia to life. There are groups such as Singing for the Brain, Live Music Now, Lost Chord and many more doing some wonderful work. These groups tend to be run in care home environments or as weekly gatherings in the community.

This is fantastic and incredibly valuable work but I have a dream that all caregivers sing whilst going about their daily tasks, not just as a part of an organised event, but just in everyday activities.

Music and my Mum

When my sister and I were caring for Mum she had access to music in many ways. My son would take her out for a drive and sing to her to and with her the whole time in the car and walking back to the house – the distant strains of my son and mother singing ‘A Long way to Tipperary’ warned us that our peace was about to be shattered!  She would listen to CDs, particularly of music from her younger days and the music that Dad played a lot (Bing Crosby for example), she would watch musicals, watch Songs of Praise or go to church and (even when she could speak little) sing every word of her favourite hymns. And, of course, I sang to and with her all the time.

There is lots of research that shows how music activates both sides of the brain and even creates new connections both within and between the hemispheres. The left side of the brain controls logic, and language and the right side controls creativity and arts. Singing, therefore, stimulates both sides of the brain with word and music. There is also research showing that music rather than the spoken word helps people recover better from strokes.

Singing as general communication and an aid to understanding everyday tasks

I started singing to Mum instinctively. We often found singing was a good way to communicate and used it in many ways. We would use it to introduce ourselves to her. ‘Good Morning Winnie Limon, Winnie Limon, Winnie Limon, I’m your youngest daughter and Barbara’s my name’ sung to the tune of ‘There’s ahole in my bucket’. This simple ditty reminded her who I was, who she was and our relationship and told her that it was morning time. It always got the morning off to a good start and generally brought a smile to her face and, if not, at least it brought a smile to mine.

We also discovered that if we sang to Mum rather than speak she would understand better what we wanted her to do and be able to perform tasks more easily. I would choose a simple tune, so for example, – ‘Let’s go for a shower, a shower, a shower. Let’s go for a shower and get nice and clean’ again went very nicely to ‘There’s a hole in my bucket’  

Another example was to get her walking we would sing ‘Left foot, right foot, one, two, three. Left foot, right foot, one, two, three. Left foot, right foot, one, two, three. Skip to the loo dear mother.’  To the tune of ‘Lou Lou skip to my Lou.’ I believe that the combination of the sung word was firing both sides of the brain – so helping Mum to understand. Walking certainly seemed to be easier and she walked in time to the rhythm.

In fact, I recently saw a video about how music is now used to help people with Parkinson’s disease walk.

Whilst washing her hair I would be sing ‘I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair... ‘. Singing to her during showering helped maintain a light atmosphere.

We would sing suitable ditties all during the day. We would either make up the whole song or put our own words about eating, drinking, playing dominoes, whatever is was we were doing, to a familiar and simple tune. No matter what it was she always seemed to understand us better if we put a tune to it.

We also regularly sang her to sleep with a lullaby she had been sung as a child, taught to me as a child and she had sung to my children.

Singing to maintain speech

We would often sing something very familiar with her – for example ‘show me the way to go home’ when on the way to bed. She would join in and sometimes I would leave a word out for her to fill in - and she always did. It is just about being a little imaginative and it doesn’t matter how well or otherwise you can sing – it’s just a bit of fun that can help with daily tasks and make everyone feel better and more relaxed.

Singing brings you together in an activity and I felt it gave her a sense of achievement – especially with the filling in of words.

Mum even started to communicate with us through music. It took us a while to understand why she was banging her tea cup on the table to the rhythm of ‘Shave and a hair cut – two bits.’ She was asking for another cup of tea of course!

Singing is good for Carers

There is a lot written about how singing can lift mood and make one feel better. It most certainly works for me. Singing releases pain relieving and anti-stress hormones. The same feel good chemicals as sex and chocolate! So, go on give it a go, no-one else is listening, and even if it doesn’t have the same effect as it had on our Mum it will make you feel better. When the situation gets difficult you can’t stay angry or upset when you are singing a jolly ditty, now can you?

Have a look at my video illustrating everything I have said above.