When John Suchet discovered the effect music had on his wife Bonnie’s dementia, it was transformative. “He closed his eyes and he loved it, he beat to the rhythm of the music with his hands, he tapped with his feet,” he said.
The wife of the former ITN news anchor had lost the ability to speak. She had been locked inside his head, sitting blank, seemingly unable to make sense of the outside world.
“The music just seems to get to them,” Suchet told the Observer. “I just want caregivers to know that music is a very, very powerful tool.”
Now Suchet wants to raise awareness about the effect of music on dementia patients. New research shows that only 16% of people with dementia engage in music frequently.
Opinium’s survey of more than 1,000 people close to someone with dementia, conducted in March on behalf of the campaign group. Music for dementiafound that 58% of patients “rarely, occasionally, or never” engage with music.
Half of the survey participants said they did not have access to musical activities or did not know where to find them.
Suchet had been married to his American wife Bonnie for 30 years when he was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2006, at age 64. He was her caretaker until 2010, when he moved into a Hertfordshire nursing home.
“[At Bonnie’s care home] there was a pianist who came to play for them every week and the residents loved it, ”Suchet said. “But it takes a little leap to think, ‘If I put headphones in my wife’s ears and play her favorite music, will it really be of value?'”
“You expect to grow old with your spouse; you are about the same age,” he said. “So why has it happened to them, not you? All caregivers of a spouse with dementia feel guilty all the time. And the biggest guilt is when you have to get them out of their house and turn them in. So when something comes up that gives them a sense of pleasure, you take advantage of it. “
People with dementia can become agitated or depressed, and Bonnie would often sit blankly until Suchet played her Abba, her favorite band.
Bonnie’s room was close to the one occupied by James Black, a film director diagnosed with the disease at the age of 57. His wife Nula, an artist, met Suchet while caring for their spouses. They married in 2016, a year after Bonnie and James died.
“James was very interested in Mozart, he had written a six-part television series on Mozart,” Suchet said. “Nula discovered that even when he had lost the ability to communicate, all he had to do was put on a Mozart CD and he would just transform. Right at the end of his life, he played Mozart and tears rolled down his cheeks. He knows that he was bringing him pleasure through music at a time when words were no longer useful. “
Professor Helen Odell-Miller, director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University, said the research showed that music could help improve the emotional state of people with dementia and created a connection between the caregiver and patient.
“We know that music is relaxing, but it can also contribute to how people relate to each other,” he said. “Nursing home staff can incorporate music into their daily care; if it’s difficult to dress someone, music can help. “
As the damage to the brain caused by dementia increases, language is eliminated, but underneath it remains an understanding of music, similar to that of babies before they acquire language. “Music can be a way of interacting when language is gone,” Odell-Miller said.
The power of music for those with dementia was highlighted last month by Paul Harvey, an 80-year-old retired songwriter and music teacher with dementia whose song Four Notes topped the charts.
Grace Meadows, Music for Dementia’s campaign director, said Suchet’s experience showed how vital music was to people living with dementia and their caregivers. She said: “But from the results of our survey it is clear that more music services are needed to meet the demand and that there is a lack of awareness about how to access them.”
“We know that the care industry has been under extraordinary pressure this year, but looking forward to 2021, it is vital that music is at the heart of dementia care and is considered a priority, as we try to return to grow better with the care we provide. people living with dementia. “
Suchet, who is now a host for Classic FM, said people should discuss playlists with their loved ones sooner rather than later. “I like Beethoven’s music a little bit. God forbid I have dementia, but all you have to do is blow Beethoven into my ears and I’ll be happy. “
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