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Finding the Person Within Dementia Through Music Workshop Review

Uncategorized Feb 04, 2019
Author: Jordyn Gibson

Jordyn Gibson is a life-time student at the school of Earth. More formally, she studied Journalism at Ryerson and continues her education in varied certificate programs from Doula Training to Personal Finance. She is deeply passionate about Health and Wellness and how they intersect with Communications and Culture. She intends to use her passion to harness wellness, first within herself and then to transmit that message to the community around her.

I had a really good conversation and it led to an even better one—as they do.
Rachael Finnerty is the Founder and Director of Education of The Ontario Music Therapy Academy, and I had the pleasure of unpacking some concepts around our relationship to music with her. Following our conversation, she invited me to a workshop she was conducting in Hamilton. The workshop was titled Finding the Person Within Dementia Through Music. Music therapists and care professionals from all over the province—someone had even come from Winnipeg—came to learn about methods to improve their skillset. All these professionals came to hear Rachael discuss the ways that we could better support those around us living with Dementia.
She started the workshop with an ice-breaker, going around the room, while singing “hello” and the person’s name. “The concept of Hello is really important in Dementia care,” she said. “It helps set the scene and orient the person to their surroundings.” I learned that singing information is a far more effective way to transmit information for those living with Dementia. This concept was well understood among the room of professionals, but it was news to me. Good news. It was comforting to know that such a simple act, one that I enjoy, could support--even if only in a small way, the elders in my family living with the disease.
She offered up tools to add to the box that would help support Dementia care. For example, co-creating lyrics relevant to the patient’s life and singing them to the tune of their favourite song. She showed video clips of an elderly woman with whom she did this exercise. The classroom watched as she literally brightened and came alive singing the song they had written together. Music has the ability to wiggle its way into the mind in a fashion that the word alone cannot accomplish. Music helps messages stick. She compared it to the way children learn their ABCs. “We don’t expect children to remember 26 letters, but they can learn a song…”
I learned that music is the only human activity we do that touches on all the areas associated with the symptoms of Dementia – mood, language, and cognition. People become more present in the moment when they’re listening to a song. This is the power of music, and the efficiency of music therapy. “Saying please stand up and singing it elicit two different responses,” she said. I learned that a person with Dementia is more inclined to stand up when you sing and dance with them, than if you were to you speak it alone. It’s almost as if through singing you speak to a different version of the person. By animating the situation, it brings the patient into the present moment, and has the potential to make them more cooperative and responsive with the request.

Intuitively, this all makes sense. People prefer to be spoken to sweetly. Lyrics to our favourite songs are far easier to remember than Shakespeare’s sonnets. We know this. Unfortunately, this knowing isn’t put into practice. At present, there is no cure for Dementia. As the population ages, Dementia is a problem that will impact a growing number of us. Music therapy is a low-cost mitigating solution to the challenge of Dementia. It is also far less aggressive and invasive than the only other alternative, pharmaceuticals. Music therapy goes back to the roots of us as people and as a species. Through song, we communicate with the deepest parts of us, the truth of who we are as individuals. We’re reminded of younger versions of ourselves, different moments in our personal and collective history. Music is an equalizing communication tool. In the case of Dementia, it is one that has the power to support healing and enhance quality of life.

This information and these professionals must be prioritized as solutions in compassionate and cost-effective Dementia care moving forward. Incorporating this knowledge base into long-term facility staff training would not only improve the quality of life for those living with the disease but improve the quality of work from the care-providers by improving communication.
Rachael’s high energy and sweet songs show no signs of slowing down. With the continued advocacy of her and like-minded professionals, it’s only a matter of time before our healthcare system wakes up to this method as a critical and heart-warming supplement in Dementia care.