Singing together benefits both dementia patients and caregivers

Summary

A musical project offers important social and cognitive benefits for elderly people with dementia and their loved ones

Shared memories through song

Our brains are without a doubt the most fascinating parts of our bodies. Even when they falter. Which they inevitably do, with age. It’s estimated that some 100,000 people in Flanders suffer from dementia, a number that’s expected to rise, given our aging population.

The good news is that care for people with dementia is keeping pace. Caregivers and the medical community have been looking to other fields – like art, heritage and music – to improve the quality of life of people with dementia.

De Stem van ons Geheugen (The Voice of our Memory) is one such initiative. The project brings together elderly people who face cognitive decline and their caregivers to sing in groups. The idea is that singing together has a range of benefits for both parties.

“Our aim is to make the carers aware of the value and the benefits of singing,” says project manager Katrien Van Geystelen. “We organise workshops and training and facilitate exchanges between the care sector and the cultural world.”

Collective memory

She is convinced of the benefits of singing for elderly people with dementia. But De Stem van ons Geheugen has an equally important social component.

“For non-professional caregivers, social isolation is a serious risk, due to the huge demands of caring for someone with dementia at home. A choir is a social space, and it brings together people who face similar challenges.”

The idea started with a British documentary called Singing for the Brain, which talked about the benefits of singing for elderly people who suffer from dementia. The potential is enormous, Van Geystelen believes.

“Singing wakes people up, so to speak. We see in our choir practice that people who face significant cognitive decline still remember the songs from their past,” she says. “Singing in a group forges emotional ties as well. In general, choirs opt for songs that are part of the collective memory of the older generation, but often they adapt their repertoire to the singers’ preferences.” 

People who face significant cognitive decline still remember the songs from their past, and singing in a group forges emotional ties as well

- Katrien Van Geystelen

Most of the choirs are established in retirement homes. “It is definitely harder to reach out to the elderly and caregivers who live at home,” Van Geystelen says. “But we do notice that people living outside of a care facility do come back to our activities once they have a taste of singing together.”

At the moment, Bruges is the only town with a choir composed entirely of people with dementia and non-professional caregivers, the Fotonkoor. Another choir is about to be established in Sint-Niklaas.

“There is an evolution in elderly care that people should stay at home as long as possible,” says Van Geystelen. “This approach has its value, but there are pitfalls as well. Social isolation and a burden on the shoulders of non-professional carers are serious risks.”

The scientific community has done much research into the subject, and Van Geystelen sees the advantages in practice. “Our musical memory is the part of the brain that’s the most resilient,” she says. “When it is stimulated, it addresses other parts of our grey cells. We see that some elderly people who have lost the ability to speak are still able to sing along. Even the body benefits. Singing is so much more than mere reminiscence.”

De Stem van ons Geheugen is a collaboration between the non-profit Koor&Stem, Flanders Expertise Centre Dementia, care home Den Olm in Bonheiden, Antwerp province and education centre VSPW Mol.  

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