When we listen to and enjoy music it triggers the emotional part of our brain. Music and memory have a powerful connection where music lights up our emotional memories. We may like to listen to music that reflects our current mood, or we may listen to and sing along to a familiar tune and find ourselves lifted as we remember associated good times. This is the same with hymns and worship songs. Who has not been lifted by songs like Amazing Grace!
Singing of hymns and music overall has been found to have many benefits for those living with dementia. It has been found to help reduce depression, anxiety, help maintain language skills and speech. We were made to worship and singing praise and hymns really does have an impact. This is still true for those who find themselves living with dementia.
Listening to music provides enjoyment especially when shared with families, loved ones and others. A really good way that the church can minister into this area is that they could form a choir targeted at older people and to make this a Dementia Friendly activity. A choir with a mixture of those living with dementia and their carers brings a valuable shared experience and sometimes comfort and short periods of relief to carers who can forget that their loved one is unwell. The biggest bonus is that this is relatively easy to set up within a church, although it does need some commitment.
So you have decided to give this a try, advertised the choir (maybe in other local churches as part of a Churches Together initiative) the next thing is to think what hymns and songs should you choose? Why not ask those who are coming along? For the best results the hymns sung should be tailored to the choices of those living with dementia. What are their favourite hymns? Ask them, ask their loved ones. There is some evidence that the music that they will have enjoyed between the ages of ten and thirty will be the songs they most remember and enjoy. The hymns they sang at school, the hymns in Sunday School, the songs, hymns and choruses they sang in their twenties at church.
At Prama we run lots of Memory Lane groups and they always end the sessions by singing together. There are many stories from these groups where in this time of singing they see a forgotten dementia and memories being stimulated. It is in those times where individuals who were withdrawn and apathetic seem to come back into the present even if they are just listening and not singing. Music can make a difference and to provide opportunities for those living with dementia to sing is special and I would argue essential.
Musical memories are usually imprinted into areas of the brain which are less prone to the changes brought on by the various forms of dementia. There is evidence from scientific studies that listening to music lights up the brain in many places which is probably why music and singing has such a strong impact.
The church is in a unique place to support and help those living with dementia by providing opportunities for them to sing songs they will know. This will bring benefit to them and for their loved ones. Even if you don’t want the commitment of a choir why not on a quarterly basis organise a short Dementia Friendly service with some well-known Hymns. The services only need to be ten to twenty minutes long and will be of a real benefit to those who attend. Why not encourage this to be a ‘seekers’ service for the over 70’s with all welcome. If you have set up a dementia friendly choir, maybe they could support these services.