Singing is best medicine for people living with dementia

As people start living longer, we are also witnessing an increase in the number of people who are living with dementia.

It is estimated that around 5000 people in the Greater Glasgow area have the condition.

However, statistics only ever tell a very small part of the wider dementia story which affects the lives of countless loving families across East Dunbartonshire.

One such story giving a ray of hope to the loved ones of those with the incurable degenerative brain condition is a new musical therapy called Singing for the Brain.

Brian Smith, a co-ordinator who helps to run a Singing for the Brain group in Springburn Parish Church, said the results have been incredible.

People with dementia from across East Dunbartonshire visit the church hall every Monday afternoon to sing old songs from their formative years.

Brian (69), a retired book binder for Harper Collins, said: “Our first session only started last August so it’s been running for a little under a year now.

“Our normal attendance is more than 30 and it is amazing how singing can unlock their memories.”

People attending the sessions come from care homes in Stobhill, Ashgill in Milton, Abbeyfield in Springburn and North Gate, on the outskirts of Bishopbriggs.

“We have about 12 volunteers, who provide live music and warm support to our friends with dementia and their carers,” said Brian.

“The musical element of our session is based on well proven research and experience. We share some welcoming hospitality and also have a tea break half way through our singing session.

“Relatives who come along to our weekly sessions find it allows them to spend more ‘quality time’ with their loved one – it is much better than an uncommunicative visit to a care home lounge.

“One daughter of a care home resident who attends has become a valued member of our volunteer team and we regularly receive positive comments from paid carers and domestic carers alike, as well as people with dementia.”

There are many positive stories to recount. One man turned up to the sessions to see what they were doing because his relative was singing when she got home and had a really positive attitude for days afterward.

Brian is the first to admit that he is no expert on the workings of the brain, but said the results speak for themselves.

“There are six or seven different types of dementia and it is thought that musical memories are stored in an area called the auditory cortex,” he said.

“Researchers think this part of the brain is relatively unaffected by dementia.”

One of the great things about the sessions is the lasting effects they have. Relatives have reported positive effects lasting for several days.

The key to triggering the musical memories is finding familiar music everyone can sing along to. Among the favourites are You Cannae Shove Yer Grannie of The Bus and Beatles’ songs. And the group always finishes with the Hokey Cokey.

Brian explained: “I don’t know how that came about but if we don’t do the Hokey Cokey, they are not happy!

“The elderly people have grown in confidence since we started last August, and a couple are now singing solos, such as Edelweiss.

“It is so good to see everyone having such a good time and enjoying themselves.”

Singing for the Brain seeks to find an emotional connection and tap into this area of the brain.

Volunteers who attend Spingburn Parish Church can find the experience quite emotional, but this is seen as largely positive.

Brian said: “Our volunteer team members say that they are sometimes quite exhausted after a session, but this is not physical, and they are hugely enjoying their involvement.

“Our absolute wish is to treat the people with dementia and their carers with respect, but also enjoy a whole lot of mischief.

“We don’t see our project as doing something for people but, rather, very much with people.”

And the success of the group means it is now having to recruit more voluntary drivers.

Brian added: “Quite a lot of people bring in their relatives by taxi and this can be expensive.

“We would love to get more voluntary drivers.”

If you would like to volunteer your time, call Brian 0141 563 5511 or email b.smith26@ntlworld.com.