THE BLOG

The Power of Music Therapy

28/02/2014 16:27 GMT | Updated 29/04/2014 10:59 BST

Music means many things to many people, but for me I think it is best described as nourishment for the soul. With a song, tune or melody to match every mood, it is something most of us cannot live without - I certainly couldn't - and something that in our darkest times can be our most constant companion.

I'm often asked if my dad lived well with dementia. I can't say that every day and in every way he did, but what I can say is that music made a hugely significant contribution to the aim of him living well with dementia. Indeed, I would put music on a par with the love of his family, favourite food and contact with the natural environment - that is how important it was for my father.

Indeed, in the times when he couldn't eat or go outside, it was just dad, us as his family and his music -a perfect combination even in the most difficult moments, including during the last few days of my dad's life. I cannot imagine going through my father's 19 years with vascular dementia without his music library, particularly as his dementia advanced in the last 9 years. So powerful was that music that even now I struggle to listen to some of it due to the memories it evokes.

What makes music so important to the aspiration of living well with dementia? To put it simply, music transcends dementia. Living with most forms of dementia, even in the latter stages, doesn't affect a person's ability to enjoy music, follow it and contribute to its creation.

In practice this means that even when many other skills have become impossible to perform, someone who learnt to play an instrument as a child may well still be able to play that instrument. In my father's case, when he could no longer hold a conversation he could still sing a song. He had been a chorister as a child and retained his ability to sing, and his love of the freedom that expression brought him, throughout his years with dementia.

Music is liberating. Hearing is widely thought to be the last sense that leaves a person, and the unique structures within music seem to be recognisable long after other stimulus falters, enabling a person with advanced dementia to participate in singing, tap out a melody, mouth words or even just nod in time to what they are hearing.

Music also facilitates the formation and continuation of relationships. For someone who doesn't know a person, they can use music to stimulate early communication. For someone who has known a person for years, music is a way to remain connected, sharing in memories that perhaps only those two people can understand. It doesn't have to be note perfect or a concert hall performance, just personal to the individual living with dementia.

It was with my passion for music therapy in mind that I used my opportunity to comment at the G8 Dementia Summit to urge the delegates to put resources into researching therapeutic interventions for dementia (like music/arts/drama/gardening/sensory etc), rather than solely concentrating on pharmacological interventions.

I didn't make my comment because I doubt the power of these therapies, but because I believe that for them to be given the recognition they deserve, they will inevitably need some hard facts to back up their benefits if our evidence driven health and social care sectors are to widely embrace them.

Music is already strongly linked to dementia through the 'Singing for the Brain' initiative, but that alone isn't enough. My personal recommendation is, I hope, helpful to some - and many other families have benefited from similar experiences - but there is no widespread acknowledgement that music is as worthy of a prescription as any medication.

That is not to say it will benefit everyone; some people with dementia who previously loved music may come to dislike it. Equally, others who have never shown an interest in music during their earlier life may find a liking for it, or another previously undiscovered creative art, after developing dementia.

If you are looking to use music as a therapy it is vital that it is applied within the context of person-centred care. Make sure it is appropriate for a person's tastes (not your own taste), that it matches their current mood and circumstances, and that you've got the volume right.

If you still aren't convinced about the power of music as a therapeutic intervention then watch this film of Gladys Wilson and Naomi Feil. They may just make you think again.