“Whether it’s listening to favourite songs, singing or playing an instrument, most families find music has a remarkable, almost magical ability to ‘bring back’ their loved ones in a way no other therapy can quite manage.”

Earlier this week I led our weekly online singing session for the charity Music for the Memory and whilst it is always one of my weekly highlights, this session was even more special than usual …

I have been a singing leader with this wonderful charity for a little over a year, and since lockdown, we’ve put our face to face sessions on-line, with about 50 members from the three groups we run, joining us for a virtual singsong. The sound quality isn’t brilliant – after all, we’re not in studios, just our front rooms – but we’re finding ways to improve the sound, and we all have a fabulous time regardless, singing favourite songs together, waving hello and catching up a little. I just love seeing all the faces light up as we start the music!

This week, whilst singing ‘Zip a dee do dah’, I was distracted by an elderly lady in a pale blue cardigan, who was singing her heart out, completely absorbed it seemed, in the moment. I didn’t recognise her as one of our members, and after the song had finished, I complimented her about her singing. Whilst I wasn’t able to identify her by name, she was aware that I was talking about her and put her thumb up to me, with a huge smile on her face.

The session continued with a little break and a stretch and then the second half of the session, began with ‘Moon River’. Again, the same lady sang her heart out, waving her arms to the rhythm of the music and evidently thoroughly enjoying herself. The next thing, she was up out of her chair and having a little dance with a young girl who was with her – it was all really rather wonderful to witness.

After the session finished, and we’d all said our goodbyes, the Music for the Memory team had our usual debriefing session. I asked them if anyone knew who this lovely lady was. It transpired that one of the trustees had invited a friend of hers to join us online for the session last week, to try and encourage her mother-in-law to join in. The mother-in-law who I shall call Dorothy, has advanced dementia and, at times, has limited concentration abilities. Her son and daughter-in-law have understandably had a very challenging time coming to terms with the situation and meeting Dorothy’s needs. Whilst they managed to join us online for last week’s session, Dorothy didn’t engage with the singing and they weren’t able to stay online for long. Our trustee told them to try again this week – just give it another go, her mood can change from day to day, she told them – so they did – and the result was quite remarkable.

Whilst we were having our debrief, our trustee received a message from her friend saying that Dorothy had absolutely loved the singing session and had appeared happy throughout – an emotion they hadn’t seen her present, for quite some time. Dorothy continued to feel happy after the session and her daughter-in-law said that seeing her like this had been so uplifting for the family – knowing that Dorothy was enjoying herself once more.

We don’t know for how long Dorothy stayed in that good mood, but this little gap of happiness in a void of confusion, was something we were all so pleased she had experienced, and we were delighted for the family. It may have only been a fleeting moment of laughter for Dorothy, but it was a glorious, golden moment for everyone.

Music for the Memory provides an invaluable, free service to people with mild to moderate dementia and their carers. Whilst we cannot meet together face to face at the moment, we felt it was important to continue in some way, and we were relieved when we found we were able to do so, bringing music and singing back into the lives of many of our members. We’ve even had some new members join us, and some residential homes sign up too!

Seeing how our members react to the songs during a singing session, is both heart-warming and fascinating. Feelings from the past are often triggered for them and they are more able to express their emotions through singing these familiar songs than at any other time. Singing and music, and sometimes even dancing to the songs, can create calm, reduce stress and help them connect with others. It’s a truly beautiful thing to be part of.

Do contact us via Music for the Memory, for further information about our sessions, and if you’d like to read about how music can support people with dementia, you may like to read this article: Music and Dementia, Age UK.

Jane Midwinter