Music Brings Joy to Those Living With Dementia
Talitha Arts is passionate about using the creative arts to bring joy to those who are living with dementia. As we slowly emerge from COVID-19, our therapeutic arts workshops will be more needed than ever - offering connection, hope and restoration. That's why we are thrilled to have Dr. Fiona Costa share a Talitha Talk on Using Music to bring Joy into the Lives of People with Dementia on Saturday the 24th of April, 10:00am GMT.
You may recall certain mnemonic techniques you practised as a child to aid the learning of tricky spellings, the 12 months of the year, or the order of the planets in our solar system. Perhaps you still use these techniques every time you write, sing or think of a certain word or phrase. They tend to become ingrained in our brains and it is hard afterwards to lose the association. One I always remember myself is Big Elephants Can Always Understand Small Elephants; that helped me through many troubled times! Especially at a young age and for the developing brain, techniques such as mnemonics help us to easily recall information and, crucially, to hold onto it for life.
A particularly effective way to encode information into the brain is through music. Even more fascinating, though, is the recent research on music and brain functioning which suggests that the structure and pattern in music and rhythm can help to enhance the cognitive functioning in brains which have been impaired by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This intriguing research has been at the heart of Dr Fiona Costa's recent studies and practices; investigating the use of music to aid memory, retention and communication for people living with dementia.
Together with memory loss and the decline of problem solving skills, a later symptom of dementia is a distinct difficulty in using functional and expressive language. Not only can this cause frustration and communication challenges, but it can also prevent people from indicating basic needs. Current research into the use of music for people living with dementia has shown, not only that it can bring joy through conjuring past pleasant memories, it also enables people to recall experiences once forgotten and to re-learn communication routes through mnemonic practises.
As the disease progresses, the decline in communication ability affects many activities of daily living, particularly social interaction and makes it difficult to express choice, for example of food, drink or activity. This challenge of communication is frequently exacerbated by sensory impairments and can result in conflict, isolation, depression and earlier placement in residential care. 
Dr Fiona's recent research within this field has included a six-month pilot study which explored the use of mnemonic strategies for the recall and use of functional language in people with dementia. The study consisted of weekly music sessions which engaged residents from two care homes specialising in the care of people with dementia. Split into two parts, the workshops incorporated sing-alongs familiar from childhood and teenage years, followed by the introduction of 'micro-songs' to aid the re-learning of functional language for daily life.
The case studies resulting from weekly observations all indicate improved engagement and word retention after taking part in the series of workshops. All participants joined in the singing at some point, as well as demonstrating other physical responses such as foot and hand tapping to the beat, clapping and dancing. The research team also noted heightened wellbeing through the smiling, laughter and improved attention of many involved. On top of this, their ability to learn and retain the words from the songs sparked feelings of achievement and most notably, improved access to words which had been lost from their day-to-day vocabulary.
In addition to increased confidence and social interaction, results showed that participants learned the new materials in an average of four weeks and could recall them after intervals of between one week and two-months. 
Talitha’s practitioner, Kate Snowden, recalls a powerful memory where a verbally-challenged resident began to mimic the motions of playing the piano on her legs during one of our music workshops at Dalemead care home. The woman had been a concert pianist in her younger years, and the particular music had brought her back to ingrained, joyful memories and actions. ‘The music the team was using triggered her memory and enabled her to be part of the group activity without engaging verbally, as well as re-connecting her to her muscle memory.’
Important to note is the creative fun music allows people to engage in, without limitations or a set structure to follow; each individual is free to participate in any way they feel comfortable. This is the ethos that we follow in all Talitha workshops, and we see it to be incredibly healing.
Don't forget to Click here* in order to register for Dr Fiona’s Talitha Talk: Using Music to Bring Joy into the Lives of People with Dementia. You will hear about the current research in this field from Dr Fiona herself and further explore the intricate ways in which music can bring joy and purpose into the lives of those living with dementia.
*This event is free to attend, but please consider donating £5 to Talitha Arts as a contribution to our ongoing work to support vulnerable and disadvantaged groups through creative and therapeutic workshops.
An active member of Holy Trinity Brompton for over forty years, Dr Fiona Costa has been involved in several areas of ministry, most recently those involving older people. Over ten years ago, she initiated and set up a series of concerts and teas for older people in the community. Held six times a year, these concerts are attended by up to five hundred people per event. They give opportunities to make friends, to be welcomed into the church community and to experience music performed by some of the UK’s finest musicians. If you would like to know more about her work and research projects, you can find her profile on LinkedIn.
Dr Fiona Costa originally trained at the Royal College of Music. Her lifelong interest in music, together with a calling to a ministry with older people, has led to a range of different initiatives and interests. As a research fellow at the University of Roehampton, her principal research interest is the effect of music on the wellbeing and quality of life of older people. Her PhD and subsequent research projects have studied the effect of music on pain, stress, anxiety and depression. Most recently her work has focused on the use of music to aid memory and communication in people with dementia.
As we recently surpassed the one-year mark of the first national lockdown in England, it is important to recognise the difficulties people living with dementia and other complex illnesses or mental health issues have faced during this time. The effects of the lockdown have been particularly hard on vulnerable communities, with many people experiencing increased loneliness and an acute sense of fear. Please reach out to us for wellbeing resources if you have been struggling yourself, and if you’d like to support those living with dementia you can do so through The Alzheimer’s Society, the NHS, and the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support Services.
1. 'A Report of a Pilot Study Exploring the use of a Mnemonic Strategy for the Recall and use of Functional Language in People with Dementia': HSOA Journal of Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, Fiona Costa, Adam Ockelford and Caitlin Shaughnessy.