People with Dementia Find Renewed Confidence While Playing In Orchestra

Alzheimer’s is a global issue that is on track to bankrupt worldwide health systems if a cure is not found. Therefore, funding for research is paramount, not just for those who have the disease but for future generations, as well. However, large numbers of the people who have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia at this time are trying to make the point that it is equally important to put imagination, research and funding into how to care for those who already have this incurable disease.

With this goal in mind, Bournemouth University Dementia Institute (BUDI) in Dorset (UK) has found a unique method to help boost confidence and mood for people with all kinds of dementia. The program was originally set up in partnership with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Participants have found that the experience of playing in an orchestra has positive effect on confidence and mood. Many participants have learned new skills while others have rediscovered old ones.

Music helped several of my loved ones with their aging issues, each in a unique way. The person who came to mind when I read about this orchestra is my mother-in-law. While Alice was never diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she definitely had a form of dementia. Now that diagnosing techniques are more refined, likely tests would show Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice had become so paranoid and lonely in her condominium, even with my daily help handling her meals and other issues, that it was obvious a move to the nursing home that she could already see from her living room window was necessary. My dad and uncle were already living at Rosewood, and I visited there every day, so we hoped that she wouldn’t find the move hard.

To my astonishment, not only was the move not hard on her, it was an amazing step forward. From the moment we walked in the door and I took her to her prearranged room she refused to even glace out the window for a look at her old home. She made it clear in her own way that this was now her home and she began to flourish. I could tell she felt safe and cared for. Soon, the staff had her playing the piano, something that she hadn’t done at home for several years. Alice was once a church organist – a very talented one. So, it was a thrill for me to see her happily playing for an appreciative audience at Rosewood.

Music and the arts reach beyond words

In my article titled When Words Fail Music Speaks, I discuss the use of music in more detail. However, it’s not just music that helps people move forward, but theater and the fine arts, as well. Reader’s theater meant especially for those with memory problems has much the same effect as playing a musical instrument.

While I bought CDs with every big band I could find for my dad, high tech methods that achieve the same thing are now available. We can program iPods with chosen music from any era with no worry about someone having the change out CDs. This type of therapy is effective for calming people who are agitated from symptoms of dementia, as well as simply providing entertainment and stirring up memories for lonely or ill elders.

Using the fine arts as therapy was a grass roots movement that had to be taught to the medical field, though now most experts in dementia are entirely on board. Creativity Matters, the National Center for Creative Aging and Arts for the Aging and Cognitive Dynamics are four such efforts. Many are using music and art on local levels, as well.

After the diagnosis people must going on living

A dementia diagnosis isn’t the end. In a way it’s a beginning. The dreaded word - dementia - has been said out loud and working toward acceptance is now the only option. Part of living with dementia is finding ways to enjoy life and maintain some self-confidence. Projects such as the BUDI orchestra in the UK and the arts programs here in the US are an integral part of helping people continue to live their life with dementia.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at