Blog – Church Farm and Skylarks

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.

B47 Day Room

Today we played in the day room on Ward B47. One lady was agitated and wanted to go home. She was reassured by the activities co-ordinator that she was going home later in the day. She started talking to me about how she used to play the mandolin and I let her have a go on mine. She then said that her family used to play all together and many musicians used to come to their house in Poland. She couldn’t remember what her brothers used to play and she didn’t know what happened to them. The Russian soldiers had come and taken her away to Siberia and then someone had brought her to England. She played the glockenspiel with us on and off for fifteen minutes or so, very much stilled and calmed by the engagement. Just before leaving she said how everything had been lost “All gone. Blown away by the wind”. It only struck me when I got home that not all had been lost, she had not been blown away by the wind.

Blog post – QMC

At the end of our morning on the dementia ward at QMC we had a few minutes left, and had not yet been to the double side-room.  We were being observed by two Music in Healthcare apprentices, and James suggested they watch from outside the room to avoid ‘crowding’. There were two patients in the room, both in bed. One was a very frail and poorly-looking lady whose husband had just arrived to visit. The other lady smiled when she saw us and said “oh, have you come to play me some music?” We sang Over the Rainbow to her, and she joined in.

While we were singing to her I noticed the husband of the other lady, who had his back to us, looking over his shoulder at us, in a way which I interpreted as perhaps resenting our being there. He seemed quite tearful, and I wondered if he felt we were intruding on him and his wife at a very difficult time. When we finished Over the Rainbow I gestured to James indicating that the man was possibly unhappy with the music; almost at the same time he turned round to us, and James asked, “Is this ok, are we disturbing you?”. The man replied, “Not at all, it’s lovely” then added, “I know you’ve done it already, but a song I really like is You Are My Sunshine, would you do that one please?”

We sang a very gentle rendition of You Are My Sunshine, with a harmonica solo, and while we sang the man was leaning over his wife in the bed, stroking her face and singing softly to her. He sat down wiping his eyes, and clearly didn’t want to weep openly. It was a very emotionally charged moment for all of us and we were close to tears ourselves as we left the room, the man thanking us. The apprentices observing had also been very moved, one going off round a corner for a cry, and the other moving away slightly where she couldn’t see the man and his wife, as it seemed intrusive to watch this tender moment.

We talked about it later with the apprentices, and all agreed it had been very powerful, and that our own emotions must be attended to in this work. There are times when we need to hold back, in order to maintain the quality of the music, but we recognise that afterwards we should pause and allow our emotions expression, acknowledging that the musical conversations we have are two-sided, and we too are affected.

Blog post from Skylarks Care Home:

Entering Nightingale we played and sang softly for the residents gathered there to many smiles and a little dancing. One lady we have seen regularly seemed particularly withdrawn and “far away”. She has lost much of her verbal communication and struggles to engage in activities. Holding and swinging hands with her in time to the music we started singing and playing You Are My Sunshine. She immediately looked at me with clear focus and sang with us all the way through. I then sang How Much is That Doggy in The Window which she didn’t sing and I asked her if she knew that one to which she immediately replied “No”. We then started Somewhere Over The Rainbow to which she immediately responded and sang all the way through again holding my gaze with great attention. During the music she would sometimes let go of my hand but then consciously reach out for it again. “Did you like that one?” I asked to which she immediately replied “Yes”. I felt that the music had reached out to her and created a bridge between us creating a profound sense connection and of her being totally present in those moments in time.

Blog post from Ward B47

This great interaction happened in the Day Room of specialist dementia care Ward B47 at QMC, in which six patients and two staff were gathered. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the room by the Activities Co-ordinator, and as usual some patients were alert and chatty while others seemed withdrawn and uncommunicative. As one of the ladies was Irish, we began with some Irish jigs and the room was immediately engaged, listening and commenting on the music. We then sang some popular songs and gradually introduced instruments (xylophone, glockenspiel, shakers etc) which were shared and played for half an hour. People joined in with the singing which stimulated the remembering and singing of songs they knew. Other staff came and went, smiling at the scene, some staying longer and taking part. Natural pauses were filled with conversations and reminiscences triggered by the music. As the group continued playing after we had moved on to the ward, we felt a real sense of community and social occasion had been created for staff and patients.