Two years ago, in an article I wrote for FIOP, I wrote ‘‘Thank you for the music: The songs I’m singing’ The sentiment and gratitude expressed in this song by ABBA have been, over the last 10 years, expressed and felt by hundreds of people with dementia, their carers and volunteers throughout Scotland.
They have all been part of singing groups developed and run by trained volunteers. All were based on a model which provided companionship, support and the joy of singing for people with dementia and their carers in an undemanding, warm, dementia friendly environment.
Many of these groups were set up as a result of workshops hosted by FIOP and run by Diana Kerr.
Sadly, and inevitably these groups had to shut down with the onset of the pandemic. At that point most of us did not realise how long the shutdown would last and hoped that perhaps within the year we could get groups going again. This was clearly not going to be the case.
It is important to hang onto the experiences and knowledge gained through the groups and for this to be constantly reiterated until the groups can start again.’’
Throughout the previous two years I and others have been approached by carers and people living with dementia to say how much they missed the groups, what they had added to their lives and expressing a wish that as soon as possible the groups would be reinstated. Well, some of the groups are now starting again. There is, however, a need to get more groups going and to expand the groups that have restarted. An issue for some of the groups that were running before the pandemic is that two years on their volunteers are older, some are less able and some now have other commitments. The need for new and perhaps some younger volunteers is clear. It is important, however, to emphasis the amazing commitment and achievements of the volunteers who were keeping 20 or more groups going throughout Scotland and who are determined to get going again when possible.
Why are singing groups for people living with dementia so important?
People with dementia and their carers often become isolated and alone. Coming together with others in a group that is about having a good time is a rare opportunity. It is also important to emphasise here that this is not about choirs, it is not about performance or being right or having expectations it is about having a jolly good sing song where not knowing the words is irrelavant, la di da is just as good, or whistling or just swaying.
It is with this in mind that, at risk of repeating previous blogs, I want to outline the benefits of singing groups for people living with dementia and their carers and to suggest that if you are reading this you think about setting up a group or getting involved in one.
So, what is so good about singing for people with dementia?
Well, it is no surprise that singing is good for people living with dementia as singing is good for all of us and that does not go away, in fact in some ways, the benefits increase when someone develops dementia.
As words fail and communication and the ability to connect to others diminishes, singing in a group helps people living with dementia to be with others and to also do something with others, it becomes an opportunity to communicate, forget worries, get air into the lungs and make their presence felt and heard.
One of the important aspects of supporting people with dementia is to minimise the impact of their losses and to play to their strengths. Music and the memory for songs stays long after other skills and memories have disappeared or diminished. If people can sing songs, then we should be encouraging this, helping them maintain the skill and the sense of achievement and joy that goes with that. We know that singing makes people happy. Even if the person with dementia forgets that they were singing soon after the event this does not negate its worth. They will still feel good even if they cannot remember why. People with dementia live much in the moment so we should be trying to make as many moments, as possible, good ones and singing undoubtedly achieves this. The singing can also transport people back and can energise and enliven people. The following is a good example of this.
As a young woman, Kate sang in various bands and continued to sing throughout her life. Her dementia was at a stage that conversation was limited and she did not sing at all, even with the encouragement of her family.
Her husband brought Kate to the Singing Group in the hope that she might enjoy the singing. The Singing Leader that day had brought hats which resembled the hats worn by the Andrews Sisters which would have been the era when Kate was singing in the band. She offered the hats out to anyone who might want to wear them whilst we sang the Andrews sisters famous song “Don’t sit under the Apple tree”.
With encouragement, Kate took a hat and stood up, she started to sing and slowly parade around the hall singing to what she saw as the audience. It seemed that the setup had triggered memories for Kate and it became obvious that she had moved into “performance mode”. Not only did she sing but she took a bow at the end of her “performance”.
Another wonderful example of how the music and singing can stimulate activity is shown by Julie.
Julie attends our singing group with her son. Julie rarely speaks and equally rarely sings the songs but the moment the first note is played she is up and dancing with her son. She is transformed from a fragile elderly woman into a lithe, energetic and smiling woman. She is capable of dancing for the best part of an hour with short breaks.
These are examples of how the music and in particular the singing triggers communication, activity and happy memories.
It can feel quite daunting to set up and run a group but FIOP is going to re-run workshops to help people do this. I have also written a book that has been used extensively to help and guide people to set up a group.
The book Singing Groups for People with Dementia
is available online and at
Practitioner, Researcher, Educator and Trainer
Associate, Faith in Older People