Towards the end of our first year’s project at Church Farm and Skylarks Nursing Homes, both specialist dementia homes, we had instances in both that illustrate the significance of repeated, regular visits for music-making.
At Skylarks, ‘Sheila’ had always apparently disliked it when we played music in her lounge. She would call out negative comments, or loudly sing something else across us. We bore this with good humour and learned to stay away from her if possible, and her interruptions changed to simply ignoring us it seemed. On our last day there, I was heading across the room to someone I thought might like to try the xylophone, and as I went past Sheila she politely asked “can I have a go with that?” She played for a good few minutes and really enjoyed it, then telling us that she had played the piano as a child and so she knew what the notes were. We had quite a chat about her past and music generally, and when we remarked it was the first time she’d played with us, she said “well you’ve never offered before!”
At Church Farm a very active resident, ‘John’, appears to be a foreman, constantly moving around the home and giving instructions and explanations of what’s happening, in jumbled sentences. He has frequently passed us and spoken to us, but never appeared to respond at all to the music, simply going about his work. On one of our last visits, he came by holding a tambourine, and I couldn’t resist saying “Hey, Mr Tambourine Man, we’ve got a song for you”. He looked at James and said “I know you” in a very friendly way, and James very positively affirmed that yes, he did know us. Looking at my guitar, John said, “Oh, I haven’t seen one of those since….I used to…” and gestured playing a guitar. Though the rest of his words were again cunfused, he was clearly delighted to realise what we were there for. He then played the tambourine in time while we sang Mr Tambourine Man, before moving off again on his rounds.
Another lady who had repeatedly told us to go away to begin with, also began to recognise us and appreciate the music, and later in the year would ask us to play for her, eventually also joining in on the glockenspiel.
In a training session on working with people with dementia, we had learned the importance of giving time for people to assimilate what’s going on, and have made sure we work slowly and stay with people longer than with other client groups. We had not anticipated these kinds of developments over such a long period, and realised that the impact of regular visits is enormous.