Recently, I wrote about how playing in an orchestra has helped people living with dementia renew their confidence in themselves. Another twist on music has now come in a recent report from the British Psychological Society's Division of Clinical Psychology in London. The researchers describe how both the people in their study who had dementia, as well as their caregivers, benefitted from group singing.This exercise seemed to have much the same effect on the people with the dementia as the orchestra experiment.
While music is valuable on its own, and reminiscing while singing old songs is helpful, it seemed that one of the important takeaways from the most recent experiment was that the couples were doing something together as equals. This, in turn, helped the person with dementia feel more confident.
Why would we be surprised? People with dementia are not less intelligent after they develop the disease than they were before. They aren’t less talented. They aren’t less in any way except that portions of their brains are being damaged by the disease so that they can’t always function well in the world as we know it. Anything that can level the playing field for people with dementia is bound to give them joy and renewed confidence.
Learning new materials enhanced the experience
What is surprising is that the researchers for the project said that learning new materials helped the participant's symptoms.
One of the researchers said, “…couples who learnt or performed new materials reported the greatest benefits, which is interesting considering many dementia therapies are based on reminiscence. This understanding may have implications for psychological therapists’ involvement in dementia care.”
Learning vs. reminiscing
I’m hoping that this small research project is duplicated elsewhere and the results carefully studied. As was mentioned, therapists now tend to concentrate on reminiscence as the best way to engage someone with dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, since people with Alzheimer's generally lose the ability to create new memories. Much of this ability depends on the stage of the person's dementia.
Many of us who’ve cared for people with dementia have seen good results with the reminiscence approach. Old movies and DVDs can bring a lot of pleasure to people with dementia, often calming them when they are distressed. These methods take them back to a time when they felt more secure in their abilities.
Most of our best assisted living facilities and nursing homes already use this approach, as well. The social aspects, the memories evoked, the feeling of accomplishment and the fact that music stimulates memory all offer immeasurable benefits. If those who can still learn new material without undue frustration benefit even more, that’s wonderful.
It will be interesting to track the new information from studies about how or if people with Alzheimer's learn new information. However, even as studies continue, I’d hate to see simple pleasures turn into complicated lessons.
I'll still savor the fact that people who love music, whether it's through group singing or other approaches, are simply enjoying participating because their caregivers have the good sense to provide musical opportunities for their loved ones who have lost the ability to connect with the world in other ways.