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Writing music and lyrics benefits people living with dementia

An innovative research project in Victoria could be the basis of an international trial as people living with dementia and their carers experience many benefits from group song-writing.

Funded by Shire of Yarra Ranges, the New Dimensions in Songwriting project involved Professor Felicity Baker from Melbourne University and Cath Russell from Dandenong Ranges Music Council working with people living with dementia and their carers from Caladenia Dementia Care Mooroolbark.

Over ten weeks, they helped and encouraged the two groups to write original songs that reflected their experiences. It is believed to the first time this type of study has been done.

“We used original song-writing where the people created lyrics and music, whereas in the previous USA study they only rewrote the words to existing songs (song parody),” explains Prof Baker who is experienced in using song-writing with people to help them cope or explore painful experiences. “We found that people took the song-writing process very seriously saying they learned a lot about themselves and each other.”

Prof Baker says people were able to remember the lyrics and tune from week to week. “Despite common misconceptions, this shows people with dementia can learn new things,” she says.

One participant who is living with dementia says: “To create something; that was really rewarding for me.”

Over ten weeks people living with dementia and their carers wrote original songs reflecting their experiences

Family members and carers were encouraged to create songs as a way of expressing their feelings and exploring both the positive and negative components of caring for someone living with dementia.

One carer says it was very good. “Quite cathartic in a way and it unloads a lot of the emotional feelings that you hang on to.”

Sarah Yeates, Caladenia Dementia Care Manager says initially many people said ‘I’m not musical’ or were dubious about being able to do something as daunting as write a song. “It was wonderful to see individuals become more confident, arguing with each other over the best rhyme or phrase,” she says.

Several songs have been recorded and Ms Russell says the song True Spirit, written and recorded by the carers about their lives with their loved ones is truly moving.

Prof Baker says she’s talking with colleagues from Denmark and Germany about how the study could be developed into an international controlled trial. “This would give us some cross cultural information about how it works and to refine the intervention before a larger roll out can be recommended,” she concludes.

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