A new campaign aims to show how listening and playing music can help patients be happier, healthier and more harmonious
When Eileen Pegg developed dementia in 2015, she became very anxious and easily agitated. Her carers at MHA Weston and Queensway care home in Stafford were determined to find a way to make her happier, so they decided to see if music would help.
The care home, which is a specialist dementia care unit, has provided music therapy for more than 10 years, and these sessions have made a real difference to Pegg, according to care assistant Chloe Pugh. When Pegg, now 91, attended her first music therapy session in 2016, she was crying and unable to calm down. But immediately afterwards, Pegg was a “completely different person”, smiling and recalling dancing with her husband. “We can’t eliminate her anxiety completely, but we can help to alleviate the symptoms for Eileen, and help her engage more with what’s happening around her,” says Pugh. By singing and clapping along to music or playing instruments at her weekly one-to-one classes, Pegg is calmer, which has encouraged her to participate in other activities, thereby improving her appetite and mood.
Pegg is not the only one to benefit from these sessions. More than 2,000 residents across MHA’s 84 care homes take part in regular music therapy groups. And it’s not just clinical music therapy that helps dementia patients: choirs, music groups and specialist apps are all beneficial.
Music uses different parts of the brain from language, so can be used to communicate with people with dementia, even if they no longer speak or seem to understand others’ words. As a result, it can help them express feelings and ideas and interact with others. It also reduces social isolation and encourages more physical activity through dancing or moving to the music.
Research published last year by the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) and the Utley Foundation found that music has significant physical and mental health benefits for those with dementia and helps them retain their speech and language skills longer.
“Analysis showed that music helps to significantly minimise some of the symptoms of dementia, such as agitation, and can help to tackle anxiety and depression,” says Sally Greengross, chief executive of the ILC.
Little wonder then, that the government wants to expand the use of music for dementia patients, as part of its drive to expand “social prescribing”. The NHS long-term plan, published this week, promised to roll out social prescribing, including music and the arts. By April 2021, there will be over 1,000 trained social prescribing link workers and more in place by April 2024, with the aim that over 900,000 people are able to be referred to social prescribing schemes by then, the plan says. These link workers will connect patients to local groups and support services.
“Research suggests music can help people with dementia reduce the need for medication or restraints, address agitation and help people and their families cope better with symptoms,” says the health secretary, Matt Hancock. “This is the kind of good value, easy-to-use social prescription that I’m fully behind and I fully support work that helps us move to more person-centred care – a key part of the NHS’s long-term plan.”
But it comes at a price: the King’s Fund has pointed out that social prescribing can be more expensive to commission than seeing a GP in the short term. And on average, it costs MHA £30 per person for each music therapy session in its care homes. With social care finances stretched to the limit, music is not a priority at many homes, while the availability of community-based choirs and interactive music groups for dementia patients is limited.
In a bid to make it easier for commissioners, care providers and patients to find out what services are available and to identify gaps, today sees the launch of the Music for Dementia 2020 campaign. The campaign’s website will share best practice and research and will have a searchable database of suitable music activities for dementia patients. “Part of developing the promotion of music for people living with dementia involves being smart about where we support resources, so we need to know where there’s already good work happening,” says Grace Meadows, the programme director at the Utley Foundation and a senior music therapist at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
Backed with £1m from the Utley Foundation, with additional ongoing annual funding of £500,000, the campaign aims to increase public awareness and backing for music to be an integral part of all dementia care pathways. The funding will finance local and national projects, scaling them up, helping to introduce music where there is currently little or no existing provision as well as training the workforce. “We want everyone in the UK living with dementia to have access to the music that means most to them and for it to be accessible in the most appropriate and effective ways,” says Meadows.
“For some this will mean ensuring they have the right technology – allowing them to enjoy their favourite music wherever and whenever they want. For others it means being able to attend music groups and participate in music-making. For some, it may mean working with a music therapist. Music for people living with dementia isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity.”
Back in Stafford, Pugh is clear about the importance of music to the lives of those she looks after. “Music is and will continue to be the heartbeat of care for our residents,” she says.