Vera is in her late eighties and a regular attendee of the weekly singing sessions I run in her care home. She sings with gusto and humour but often, we share memories of songs, she will lapse into melancholic frustration.
“I had a husband…but I can’t remember him…Isn’t that terrible? I forget everything……”
But then the next song starts and as her mood lightens she rattles through each verse unprompted, followed but another song and another…
Songs stay with us, right up until the end. Unscientifically described as “first in, last out” we sing and improvise long before we begin to form sentences, and long after we lose the ability to. The health benefits of singing are now thoroughly established, as is the importance of arts engagement for well-being, whatever stage of life we are in, but the firework explosion in our minds which happens when we engage with singing, is still not fully utilized in care settings.
Dr Trish Vella-Burrows, principal research fellow at the De Haan Centre, where much research in this field is carried out, sees a positive, if still unfolding landscape
“Singing has gained traction as a popular medium but academic research has to be very robust. There is no doubt singing in a group promotes well-being and a sense of belonging…”
Joining a choir now seems a hundred times more popular than it was thirty years ago, and it’s not all down to the Gareth Malone effect. Choir members today are much more likely to join for the feel-good factor they feel singing, than a burning desire to crack the tenor part in the Messiah .Singing lowers blood pressure, releases endorphins, promotes deeper controlled breathing: It energizes and exercises brain, mouth and lungs, and most importantly it connects us to ourselves and others. A song is not just song, particularly for the less active, but it can be a vivid memory of a place, a person, a feeling and can provide a haven for revisiting and sharing memories in a controlled and positive way. Singing is one of the few ways some residents can be persuaded to connect with others. A regular group can make allies of all participants, even that difficult and silent member who still comes every week and then just maybe sings along when you least expect it.
WHAT SINGING CAN BE IN CARE
So with all this evidence what is the reality in care? There is much good work evidenced in many case studies and reports but still is a long way to go in many establishments. Too often the Activities manager fills a slot with a booked singer –job done-and doesn’t consider the multi-dimensional nature of what the singing experience in care can be. There should be a place for outside performers, but also regular active singing groups for residents with a focus on participation and sharing. There should be facilities and support for structured and unstructured listening and singalongs but employing versatile professional musicians, who can draw out and accompany spontaneous bursts of song, will often elicit the most meaningful exchanges. Nina Clark’s Musical Walkbout is a great example of this in practice. Dr Vello-Burrows points out how staff need more support says but sees much fantastic practice.
“I sense a gathering momentum about the initiatives we’re involved in but we need more publicity about the various ways singing can be used in care”
A FEW TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
There’s no rulebook- personalising singing for your particular home and residents is the most important thing-
- Do your homework in advance – find out likes, dislikes, singing history and favourites.
- Try a gentle warmup,-relaxed breathing exercises or perhaps a well-worn welcome and farewell song .Aim for a mixture of old favourites and some new and look out for the willing soloist
- Views on use of song-sheets vary, but it can be good to include for use. Some residents may turn up regularly simply to listen, to read the words and access to lyrics can create other engagement opportunities. I have heard the words to Some Enchanted evening read out like a Shakespeare sonnet!
- Remember not everyone will like everything and don’t be put off if someone chooses to leave mid chorus! They may return next week.
- Singing should not stop when the activity has finished a singing home is a happy one.
RESOURCES and RESEARCH
So what if you have the will but not the way? The following show excellent practice and support
Music For Dementia collates resources, case studies facts and figures in its mission to make music available for everyone with dementia and asks all care-worked to make music part of the daily plan as well as advice and tool-kits for health care professionals and inspiring videos for more reluctant staff members.
A Kent based company whose health professionals, researchers and arts practitioners work to deliver activities as well as training schemes.
A Choir In Every Care Home was launched in 2015 and brings together the research of the Sidney de Haan Centre with Live Music Now and community music’s Sound Sense. The website includes great starter support for staff as well as a toolkit for musicians, both professional and amateur to help them along. Musicians can often be very keen to bring their skills to a care setting but do often need more support and clarity about what works and is expected than received.
The Musical Walkabout Nina Clark’s work shows one to one quality interaction and demonstrates the value of employing a talented versatile professional musician to personalise the singing and music-making for more isolated residents.
Playlist For Life The charity undertakes creating personal playlists for those with dementia Nick Balneaves Head of Digital and Development stressed how although not essentially a live music activity, it can lead to so much more exchange and engagement, especially in homes where there is not great confidence in getting singing off the ground
“…Once people get the notion of how simple it is they are really keen…”
That really sums up the whole area of singing in care homes: It is a simple, but deeply enriching strand to weave into the daily life and routines of the residents.
“Let us go singing as far as we go: The road will be less tedious…” Virgil Eclogues Book IX