Singing Together For Dementia

Written by: Pippa Kelly, Dementia Campaigner, Author, Journalist and Blogger

Published: 01/02/2019

Pippa calls for better quality arts and music therapy for people living with dementia.

‘The past, which is not recoverable in any other way, is embedded in music as if in amber.’ So said the late neurologist Professor Oliver Sacks (this link will take you away from our website). Personal experience and my dementia work show me he is right.

My mum (pictured above) lived with vascular dementia for the last decade of her life. She died on Christmas Day a few years ago and in her final months seemed barely with us, lying immobile in her nursing home bed, eyes shut, unable to speak or eat for herself.

When, on Christmas Eve I received a call to say she wasn’t well I nearly didn’t go. This had happened so often; I was busy with festive preparations and, anyway, what could I do when I got there, mum seemed beyond reach? But of course I went, and driving from London to Surrey I remembered the BBC’s annual broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge – one of mum’s favourite things. Ever. We could listen together.

Entering her room, I sat down beside her and switched on the radio. As the chorister’s sweet, solo voice sang the first bars of Once in Royal David’s City, mum opened her eyes. That was all. It wasn’t much. She simply stared at the white painted ceiling. But it was enough – through the music, a connection had been made. It was profoundly moving.

Mum died the following day. I missed her passing by minutes, and I shall be forever grateful for those precious moments we shared (this link will take you away from our website).

Now that I write about people dedicated to enhancing the lives of those with dementia – whether through truly personalised care (this link will take you away from our website), poetry, dance (this link will take you away from our website), reminiscence therapy (this link will take you away from our website) or song (this link will take you away from our website) – I have a better understanding of the powerful impact that meaningful music can have.

So I’m calling for a radio station to reintroduce a version of Singing Together (this link will take you away from our website), a weekly schools radio programme that ran from 1939-99, this time for older people and those with dementia.

At the push of a button anyone – from someone living on their own to neighbourhood groups, to care home residents – could join in. Elderly dads, middle-aged daughters and grandchildren scattered to the four corners of the country would all, through radio, be singing together.

The idea, I hasten to add, wasn’t mine, but that of renowned soprano Lesley Garrett, whose late auntie Joan developed Alzheimer’s. Lesley made her suggestion at the launch of a report by the Commission on Dementia and Music (this link will take you away from our website) which proved, beyond doubt, that listening and singing songs enhances the mood, speech, behavioural and psychological symptoms of those with dementia.

Shockingly, the report also revealed that good quality arts therapy, including music, is available in only 5% of care homes, 70% of whose residents have dementia. Which underlines the need for something such as a Singing Together style radio programme to fill the gap.

But so far the idea has fallen on deaf ears. Despite its obligation, under its public service remit, to engage audiences ‘in activities targeted to achieve specific outcomes that benefit society,’ including the promotion of healthier living, the BBC isn’t interested. My proposal that it trial the idea on local radio also failed to cut any ice with its director general, Lord Hall of Birkenhead.

The head of another national broadcaster, though kind enough to talk to me, was anxious about targeting an age-specific audience. But, as I told him, the programme would bring different generations together, not segregate them.

It’s sad that these media moguls lack the imagination to bring Lesley’s brilliant idea to life, in whatever form works for them. The rising rates, human and financial cost of dementia (now the UK’s leading cause of death) is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime. Surely someone in the broadcasting industry can take up the baton and make this thing happen.

Pippa Kelly is an award-winning dementia campaigner, author, journalist and blogger (this link will take you away from our website. You can also follow her on Twitter (this link will take you away from our website) and Facebook.

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