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Why music can be a valuable tool for improving the lives of people with dementia

Two-part TV series fronted by Line of Duty star helps to address the challenges of living with the condition

Two-part TV series fronted by Line of Duty star helps to address the challenges of living with the condition

Actor Vicky McClure (far right) with members of Our Dementia Choir

BBC One’s Our Dementia Choir follows Line of Duty actor Vicky McClure as she takes a personal journey to discover the true extent of music’s power in helping to address the challenges of living with dementia.

With specialists from the fields of music therapy and neuropsychology, she forms a special choir of people with dementia, who will rehearse together for one unforgettable performance.

In Our Dementia Choir, we are introduced to 31-year-old Daniel, the youngest choir member, who has been diagnosed with a rare form of dementia that appears to have a genetic link. As a former drummer, Daniel has a strong association to music, but the condition has affected his musical skills.

‘Dementia can be a lonely and isolating condition and ensuring that people stay connected with their families and friends and involved in their local communities is vital’

In episode one, Daniel takes part in a cutting-edge experiment to see how his brainwaves change when he plays the drums. Daniel shows a retained memory and ability for music-making as he mimics the beat from the therapist’s drum and related brain activity is demonstrated using the scanner.

Memory bump

As people with dementia retain their clearest musical memories for music heard between the ages of ten and 30, referred to as the ‘memory bump’ (Rubin et al 1998), music can be beneficial for enhancing well-being in dementia.

Being diagnosed with dementia at such a young age can be particularly challenging for one’s personal identity, family life and life plans, especially if you have young children.

The term ‘early-onset dementia’ applies when someone under 65 develops dementia, but people much younger than this can also develop the condition. Their life circumstances can be different from those diagnosed later in life. Younger people of working age who develop dementia often have young families, full-time jobs and financial responsibilities, which poses significant challenges when they develop the condition.

‘Music may not clearly prompt memories for every individual, but the freeing nature of listening and singing can add joy and hope to life’

Maguire et al (2013) found that musical aptitude and appreciation are two of the last remaining abilities in people with Alzheimer’s, making it possible to use music to connect with people who have advanced dementia. And music can be used to link someone’s musical preferences with their personal identity, life experiences and significant events and their overall life history (McDermott et al 2014).

Not only can music evoke emotions and bring back memories, but it can also promote social interaction if done in a group.

Stay connected 

Dementia can be a lonely and isolating condition and ensuring that people stay connected with their families and friends and involved in their local communities is vital.

‘Music must be chosen wisely, with the individual in mind, so it’s important that they choose the selection themselves where possible’

Whether making music in a group or singing along with family to the television or another media device, music is therapeutic and calming, and can shift moods and help people manage stress levels. However, it is important to remember that music can also evoke sadness and anger, as well as happiness.

So music must be chosen wisely, with the individual in mind, and it’s important that they choose the selection themselves where possible.

We also need to watch their reactions and expressions closely and try a range of different genres, focusing on tracks we think have a link to significant moments or events in their lives.

Dementia is a challenging condition, currently without a cure. Music may not clearly prompt memories for every individual, but the freeing nature of listening and singing can add joy and hope to life.

The two-part series, Our Dementia Choir, airs on BBC One at 8pm on 2 May and 9 May. Related resources are available at Our Dementia Choir: Open University resources


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Further information


About the author

Geraldine Boyle is senior lecturer in health at The Open University, and academic consultant for the BBC and OU co-production of Our Dementia Choir

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