Music in Care Homes: Let the Music Play

The effects of music are often neglected in care homes, but it can play an important part in daily life and make a real difference to residents' lives. Dan Parton reports.

Barbara's story

When Malcolm Pointon was in the final stages of dementia, he could barely communicate - he had lost his speech, understanding and was bedridden. But he still had one last medium through which he could communicate - music.

Malcolm's wife, Barbara, noticed that when one of his favourite pieces was played, a tear would trickle down his face. Care workers would scold her for upsetting him, but Barbara knew that Malcolm was crying tears of joy, not pain.

"It was something he recognised and meant something to him," Barbara told them. "Music got through when every other channel for communication was blocked."

During those final months, Barbara would often play music - classical or jazz - to help Malcolm through the day. She says: "If he was depressed I'd try to find something upbeat and cheerful to play. If he was getting agitated I would put on some calming music - I used music in the place of drugs to alter his mood and make things better for him."

But Barbara, a former lecturer in music at Cambridge University, found it was not only her husband who responded positively to music. Like her husband, Barbara is an accomplished pianist and would take along sheet music of '40s-'50s tunes when she visited Malcolm in his care home, playing them on the piano in the communal lounge.

The effect was profound: "People just came out of the woodwork and found their way to the piano. What was remarkable was that even people who had hardly any speech at all - and what was there was gobbledegook - could sing the songs faultlessly and remembered all the words.

"Of course, music is closely allied to dancing and while some people were singing along to the tunes, others were shuffling around the floor and enjoying themselves."

Music in you

For many people, the positive effects of music on the elderly - especially those with dementia - and for people with learning disabilities are tangible. Stuart Wood is head music therapist of the Barchester Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy charity. He believes music makes people more co-ordinated, more in tune with themselves and more connected with other people.

He says: "Sometimes it helps restores old skills or abilities and sometimes people discover new things, even into their final years or the further stages of illness. Music therapy harnesses that ability of music to transform people."

Stuart provides sessions to try to stimulate residents, from 1-to-1 work and small group sessions to larger activities such as singing events, which might also involve staff and residents' friends and family.

His individual sessions sometimes focus on improvisation to create opportunities for communication or physical co-ordination, but can also involve teaching residents to play the piano or songwriting.

He says: "Rather than trying to find out what someone's taste is and then play that to make them happy, it is more about finding the essence of a person and expressing that musically.

"Music is something you can do in a moment to try to create a certain impact, but musicality is a way you can be with people all the time. It's about listening carefully and responding - which is the essence of person-centred care and making someone's life better."

Care home rock

This is why in many care homes music is an integral part of the activities and events programme.

For instance, Cookridge Court Residential Care Home in Leeds recently had an Elvis Presley night, complete with tribute act. "The atmosphere was absolutely electric and it roused everybody," says Anne Walding, Orchard Care Homes' community relations officer for Yorkshire/Lancashire.

"Some of the dementia residents were up, dancing, bopping, it triggered lots of things in the mind and we all had a wonderful time."

But while the event was a success, Anne did have her doubts at the time. "I looked round the room, it was so noisy and busy and I thought 'have I dropped a clanger and booked the wrong entertainer? Is it too rowdy?' But 2 separate relatives came up to me at the end of the evening and said they'd had a wonderful time and couldn't believe they were in a care home with a loved one having such a good time."

Nights such as this are an extension to the regular visits of an entertainer who plays songs, which are also well-loved by residents, Anne says. "Everybody is at ease for those two hours and we just sing, dance, laugh - it is very uplifting. People tend to think that when a person comes into a care home that that's it, their life has come to a full stop. That is not the case; you can still have fun."

Turn on, tune in

Elsewhere, many care home residents enjoy listening to the radio, especially if their sight is failing. For some, however, tuning to the right radio station is crucial.

For Alan Jefferson, CSCI's regional director for the North West and chair of its Older People's Improvement Board, care homes need to have an understanding of the type of music people in their care enjoy listening to and identify most with.

"For instance, anyone in a home now would identify most with music from the 1930s, not the 1890s," Alan says. "A variety of music is important so that everybody is more likely to hear something they like some of the time. But even though services know what music can do, they often ignore advice and have Radio 1 blaring out all day instead."

But now a new station, Bettercaring Radio, is attempting to address this by becoming the first to provide programming specifically for care home residents across the UK.

The station, a partnership between online care home search engine and magazine and hospital radio broadcaster Hospital Radio Wey (HRW) - a registered charity that has been on air for more than 40 years - produces shows that include music, dedications, games and lifestyle features.

Bettercaring Radio, which is on air 24 hours a day, has a dedicated care homes slot from 3-5pm Monday to Friday. At other times, programming reverts to HRW's output that goes to hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.

HRW's pool of DJs operate voluntarily and broadcast live from 7am to 11pm every day, with recorded broadcasts played throughout the night.

Keith Tunnicliffe from HRW says care home residents can enjoy a variety of features on Bettercaring Radio: "We play music - including residents' requests - we do quiz shows and individual features through the course of the week, such as gardening and recipes, and there are also competitions."

In addition, there are DJ visits, games and personal dedications. Care home residents are urged to take part in the programmes and keep in touch with friends and family through it. Bettercaring Radio aims to stimulate the lives of residents and build an active - and interactive - community.

Keith adds there is already a buzz about bringing radio programmes into care homes and getting residents involved. He says: "When our presenters have gone into care homes and started to chat to people, it's amazing how lively the residents are and how much they want to chat to the microphone. We will definitely be getting out and about and recording people in care homes."

"It's all about getting the listeners involved, making them look forward to this broadcast and making them feel a part of it," Keith says. "It is not just to be played as a background."