I’ve got the music in me.

I got the music in me (dementia awareness month)

September is Dementia Awareness Month. Dementia can happen to anybody, but it’s more common after the age of 65 years (although, people in their 40’s and 50’s can also have dementia). Dementia is not one specific disease; it’s a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It disturbs thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Brain function is distressed enough to interfere with the person’s normal, social or working life.

Fortunately, I haven’t had much personal experience with dementia. Until my work in medicine working as a General Practitioner, my experience was entirely limited to what I saw on TV and in films like one of my favourites ‘The Notebook’.

In case you’ve somehow missed The Notebook (or don’t remember it), it’s a movie that tells a story of an elderly man reading a book to an elderly woman in a nursing home. The elderly woman has dementia and experiences intermittent episodes of recall and recognition of the man reading the story. It turns out that he is her husband and the novel that he is reading to her is their true love story. At the end of the movie **spoiler alert** he crawls into bed with her and they drift off to heaven together.

This movie is a romanticised view of what losing a loved one to dementia would be like. In real life, it is heartbreaking to watch family and/or friends become lost to dementia. Initially, it’s just a little less “spark” or a few poor decisions made. The disease can then progress to leaving kettles on the stove, or becoming repetitive. Advanced dementia showcases the most negative aspects where your loved one is unable to sometimes talk or fails to recognise family and friends.

Because of how devastating these experiences are, when I hear of new and novel approaches to the management of dementia, it sparks my interest.

It was whilst I was listening to the ABC Radio National podcast ‘All in The Mind’ that I heard of a new approach to dementia. The particular episode ‘Music of memory’ spoke about music and the effects it has on those with dementia. There is an interview of Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr Amy Baird who researches music and memory. Dr Baird tells another story of a 92-year-old demented woman in a nursing home. The family of this patient had contacted the researcher when they noted their mum was singing along to new pop songs on the radio. Dr Baird went along to meet the patient and was actually able to teach her a new song. A week later she revisited the patient who did not recognise the doctor but could still sing the song!

During the podcast, there’s was also a story told about Henry, an elderly man with advanced dementia who spent his days sitting in a wheelchair hunched over, head down and minimally interacting with those who approach him. Henry was introduced music via headphones and an iPod, resulting in him sitting up straighter, his eyes open up wide, arms and legs are moving and he is singing along. When the headphones are taken off of Henry, nurses proceed to have a conversation with him. He is excited and animated, saying how he used to go dancing and that Cab Calloway (the artist playing on the iPod) was his favourite musician and even recalls his favourite song!

I learnt that Henry was actually filmed, forming a documentary titled Alive Inside. Naturally, I Googled the video to see for myself Henry’s story. As I watched I found myself a bit teary seeing Henry come to life as the music was played.

On my next nursing home round, I mentioned the podcast to the registered nurse. The nurse proceeded to inform me that their faculty were in the process of implementing a Music and Memory Program; they were just awaiting the iPads and headphones.

This program struck my interest and after some further research, I found that it had already been running across the USA and Canada for some time. It was only brought to Australia last year (2015) in collaboration with Arts Health Institute, where it’ll be initially rolled out in residential care facilities, with a view to eventually entering hospitals and mental care facilities.

Time will tell exactly how effective this type of therapy is and how far we can go with it. Personally, I am excited to see the results, especially with regards to aiding managing behavioural issues and improving mood. Perhaps one day instead of pulling out the script pad, GPs will be reaching for the iPad!

If you need further information on dementia to help understand it better or to help a loved one, you can visit the below websites.

If you feel that you are becoming more confused more than normal, have had a change in personality or are becoming more withdrawn, make an appointment with your local GP to discuss it further.

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