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Carers singing can aid communication in late stage dementia

Posted on 24 March 2017

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 a hole in my bucket’. 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 to 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.

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7 comments

  • Barbara Lewis: December 06, 2017

    Hello Barbara,
    I’m so glad you liked the article and that it has given you some good ideas. Do read the other blogs on my site – there may be more ideas for you.
    Have you seen the Creative Carer? She has some super craft ideas. Her website is http://creative-carer.com/index.html and she is on Facebook as well.
    All the best – Barbara :-)

  • Barbara : December 06, 2017

    Thank you for sharing your experiences Marion – you clearly used music lots with your Dad – that is so great to hear. And yes we need to do more to raise the awareness of the power of music for people with dementia.

  • Barbara Simpson: December 06, 2017

    Hi, I am the one with Alzheimer’s, and I search for new crafts or things to keep myself occupied. I really enjoyed reading your article. Thank you for giving me some ideas.

  • Marion Coleman: November 30, 2017

    What a lovely article Barbara moving and funny and the same time. How many of us have learnt the power and pleasure of music and song when carering for someone with dementia. Reading it reminded me of the singing we did with dad at bed time for us it was, show me the way to go home I’m tired and I want to go to bed. In the morning it was reveille will sound in the morning, … ( dad served in the army). Getting him ready we went through umpteen different song from, stay young and beautiful, when I was putting his cream on to putting on your white tie etc. when getting dressed all the way to white cliffs of Dover , Bless ’em all and all the old army songs. It really set us both up for the day and put my dad it a much better humour. Long after his conversation faltered he took up singing with a passion and would often break into song at a drop of a hat any where and at any time.
    Sometimes people looked annoyed, puzzled, sometimes they joined in . More needs to be done to raise awareness with carers, not just family carers but care homes and day centres to demonstrate the power and the pleasure of music and song for people living with dementia and its ability to reach and communicate.

  • Barbara Lewis: April 21, 2017

    Thank you Heather and Mary – it is so great to hear that others sing while they care too – I wish absolutely everyone would! :-)

  • Heather O'Neil: April 19, 2017

    What a great article! I sing to my mum in the shower too! Singing lifts my mum’s mood and relaxes her and makes shower time so much fun! I’m definitely going to sing ‘I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair… ‘ when I wash her hair next! We also sing Skip to the loo and Shave and a haircut!!! Thanks for more ideas Barbara … absolutely brilliant!

  • Mary Sue Wilkinson: April 18, 2017

    Thank you for this wonderful illustration of how powerful singing and music can be. I think you and I are “Two peas in a pod.”

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