A research project involving Canberra Symphony Orchestra musicians aims to strike the right chord for aged care residents with dementia and provide evidence of the benefits of music as a behavioural therapy for sufferers.
The eight-week pilot program, Music and Memory, kicked off this week at Goodwin House Ainslie with two 30-minute morning concerts on Wednesday and Friday performed by a CSO violin duo.
Over the next seven weeks, a combination of duos – violin and cello, violin and double bass, cello and double bass, and two French horns – will perform popular songs arranged by the CSO’s Dave Flynn for those in the home’s Memory Support Unit, although other residents will be able to enjoy the music as well.
While music and its connection to memory is well established, as well as its therapeutic value, this program specifically uses a personalised playlist to try to change behaviour, particularly to calm any agitation or aggression that can be part of the dementia setting.
The program was developed in collaboration with Heather Roche, a third-year Bachelor of Psychology student at the University of Canberra, and overseen by CSO bassoonist and practising audiologist Kristen Sutcliffe.
Ms Roche reviewed the literature and designed the program so that it would have a scientific basis to measure any effects the music might have.
The results will be based on questionnaire feedback from residents and their carers collected at the beginning, halfway and the end of the program, and the preliminary data will be released in time for Dementia Week in late September.
Present research is largely focused on an individual listening to recorded music, or general ‘music for relaxation’ concerts but Ms Sutcliffe says the points of difference with this program is how the playlist is tailored to the residents’ own preferences.
Interestingly, classical music did not rate with the audience and the repertoire is mostly popular songs from the soundtrack of the residents’ lives.
”We all find that at whatever stage of adulthood we’re at now, you hear a song from your childhood and it does take you back. It does invoke those memories,” Ms Sutcliffe says.
And with the residents making the choices they are likely to be good memories.
”We are very much focusing on the familiar because we know that the part of the brain that is responsible for responses to music is one of the last areas to deteriorate with dementia,” Ms Sutcliffe says.
”Having that familiarity in the music actually triggers a centre of the brain, like a reward centre, and we’re more likely to get these calming benefits.
”We’re hoping to see some reduction in aggression levels or agitation levels, and get some really good data that way to show that music can be really helpful for people with dementia.”
Ms Sutcliffe says these kinds of behaviours can be hard for staff to manage in a nursing home.
”If we can manage to not have pharmacological treatments for certain behavioural difficulties, something we can lessen through something non-invasive like music then that’s a really powerful thing,” she says.
The live music setting and its social aspect is also expected to bring benefits, particularly in light of recent events.
”We know that live music brings people together,” Ms Sutcliffe says.
The performances will take place in a stress-free environment without any kind of interaction needed, such as singing or dancing.
A resident could even be bed-ridden and moved to the performance area for the concert.
”People can just enjoy the music in a way they feel comfortable,” Ms Sutcliffe says.
Ms Sutcliffe says that in previous musical outreach programs she has seen people’s awareness flicker into life when their memories have been stirred.
”That’s an amazing response that I’ve seen before in some of our normal programs in the past, where someone who may be non-responsive in everyday life actually opens their eyes because they are hearing some familiar music.”
Repetition plays a role in the program with concerts bookended with the same songs every time – ‘You Are My Sunshine’ by Jimmy Davis and ‘Almost Like Being In Love’ from the musical Brigadoon by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
In the middle of Wednesday’s concert was Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, and in the Friday concert ‘Hit The Road Jack’ by Ray Charles.
The rest of the playlist will be drawn from the questionnaire choices, with the performers having some flexibility about other items.
The 10:30 am performance time and 30-minute duration are considered optimal for achieving the best results.
Goodwin Aged Care Services is supporting the pilot, hosting the concerts at Goodwin House, providing care supports to participants, administration, behavioural research and management of ethical considerations, including informed consent from families. ActewAGL is also supporting the work.
Dementia Action Week will be held from 21 to 27 September.