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Using music to help people living with dementia

How music can help those living with dementia

Over the past year, Quilter Cheviot has been working hard to raise awareness of dementia. The disease is a growing problem in the UK, with one million people expected to be living with the condition by 2025.

We have launched a number of initiatives over the past year, from creating Dementia Champions in each of our offices across the UK and Ireland, to writing guides and providing information for clients and financial advisers on how they can help people living with the disease. But one of the things we are most proud of is our partnership with The Brain Charity, whom we recently granted a three year funding package of £150,000.

The Brain Charity is a national organisation that provides support for people living with neurological conditions. Our support is helping the charity to research the use of music-based treatments for people living with dementia. Music can help active memory retention, and one UK study found that the use of music with care home residents led to a significant improvement in memory and communication over the six months for the study.

The study in question was actually co-conducted by an Anglo-American singer-songwriter, Beatie Wolfe, who got the idea of using music to help people after visiting a relative in care in Portugal. The director of the care home heard her singing, and asked her to play to all of the residents of the dementia ward.  Despite the language barrier, the patients woke up and joined in with the music, with the director describing the experience as the ‘best he had ever seen the group.’

That incident led Wolfe directly onto Power of Music and Dementia research tour in 2014, and has since led to her work being published by the Stanford University School of Medicine. The use of music is gaining increased scientific validity. Non-pharmaceutical interventions feature highly on the latest guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, with this including music and dance therapy.

Does science support the use of music in dementia care?

The scientific basis for music therapy is now becoming well established. Chronic stress becomes harder to handle as you get older, and can accelerate the degenerative effects of ageing. One study (Newcomer, 1999) found that increased cortisone levels – the hormone released in response to stress – started to impair verbal abilities and cause short-term memory loss. This is bad enough for someone without dementia; for someone living with the condition, any loss can make it significantly harder to enjoy simple human interaction, and have an immediate effect on quality of life.

According to a review of more than 400 research papers into the neurochemistry of music by McGill University in Canada, music reduces stress, while also leading to an improved immune system function.  The Alzheimer’s Society has also conducted ‘Singing for the Brain’ workshops, which have found that musical and social intelligence is crucial to group participation is music, and that these intelligences persist even as the verbal and logical functions of the brain deteriorate. 

Of course, one of the significant benefits of music-based treatments is the lack of side effects. Music-based treatment also encourages wider social interaction, something which can improve the quality of life for people living with dementia, and help them to maintain their independence for as long as possible.  Music activates different pathways of the brain compared to speech, giving people an alternative way to enjoy time with their loved ones.

It was The Brain Charity’s innovative approach to using music-based therapy that led to Quilter Cheviot awarding them its three year funding package back in September 2018. We’ve since received our first update from the team at The Brain Charity, and it’s been very encouraging to see the work that’s being done. If you know someone who is living with dementia or want to find out more about the disease, I’d encourage you to visit The Brain Charity’s website or that of the Alzheimer’s Society, where you can find out lots about the condition, including helpful strategies and tips for dealing with the disease.

The growing effort to raise awareness of dementia

In recent years, we have seen a growing societal effort to act on dementia, including a new long-term strategy on dementia from the government. Amongst other things, this included raising the diagnosis rate of dementia to 66%, reducing the harmful practice of prescribing anti-psychotic medication to dementia sufferers, and training all NHS staff on dementia awareness. Separately, charities like the Alzheimer’s Society are aiming to train four million Dementia Friends by 2020, and the organisation is currently on track to achieve this ambitious target, having trained 2.7m people already.

Clearly, there is still a lot to do when it comes to raising awareness of dementia, and addressing the unique challenges that the disease can bring. But I’m confident we are becoming steadily better at dealing with the condition, and helping the people living with dementia. Using music to help dementia sufferers will be an area I follow closely over the coming months and years, and it’s my hope that The Brain Charity can deliver some real insight into how we might better help people in future.

Find out more about what Quilter Cheviot is doing to raise awareness and to help our clients with dementia.

Dementia Initiative

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