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How music enhances lives: Pauline Shaw

Music is a powerful tool to boost everybody’s mood, and it can play a crucial role in today’s model of care – particularly for people living with dementia. As part of this year’s Dementia Action Week, Pauline Shaw, our Director of Care & Service Development, explains how The Royal Star & Garter Homes is using music to enhance the lives of residents.


No matter where you are from or what your life experience is, at some point music would have touched you – and it would have had a profound influence on you. Think about church music, songs that your parents liked, music related to milestones in your life, or even what you were listening to through your teenage years: you will find yourself in a whirlwind of very vivid memories.


An unstoppable power


These powerful links with past memories are particularly important for people living with dementia. Sometimes you can see someone who is withdrawing into themselves, particularly if they feel socially isolated or lonely, feeling a little bit lost in their own thoughts. Music – with its emotive power – can overcome all of this because it is a force that is very difficult to block out.


This is why we will be engaging in a project called ‘Playlist for Life’, together with one of our volunteers, relatives and staff. We work with residents to understand the music which really has a connection with them, what’s important to them, to be able to tap into that.


In fact, music is a universal language that anyone can speak. Many of our residents have sung in choirs, have been churchgoers, or have learned the recorder at school, so they are very familiar with the power of music.


We then create a ‘menu of music’ for each individual: it could be somebody’s personal repertoire, music that has importance to them, to create a playlist to support their mental health and general well-being. That music could be played just for the individual or it could be included with other people’s music, when we are sharing activities.


The charm of music


Music can help to reveal the whole person, and it can give an insight into someone’s unique identity. This is crucial because caring is not just about physical care needs, it is not only about activities and daily life, it is about asking ‘what are the other aspects of you that I still don’t know about’.


For example, I may talk to a resident about a piece of music that has huge meaning for them – and then it connects us, it immediately creates a bond, because we have a shared interest, something very mutual in our presence together.


Music can also be really useful on a practical level. It generally lifts people’s mood and well-being to the point that they will be happy to accept personal care. Perhaps an individual doesn’t really feel like having a shower or a bath that day, he or she doesn’t feel like taking their medication: sometimes, just playing music in the background, or deliberately playing their favourite piece of music, can lift the emotions and energise that person. Particularly, if you could get some singing going, with the staff joining in, then you’ve got a really lovely distraction, you can engage with them.


Music brings happiness to residents and staff alike. For instance, about a month ago I showed some visitors around our beautiful Home in Surbiton, and we came across a resident who plays harmonica. Two visitors asked him if he had it in his pocket, but he didn’t have it with him that day. “I really would have loved to hear that,” one visitor said. So, a member of staff went to the resident’s room and brought it back to him. He started playing it, and one of the visitors immediately sang – while the other one took up a guitar and played beautifully. In a moment, we had the guitar, the singing, the resident playing, and a colleague and I couldn’t resist dancing.. It was great and very engaging: everybody around was watching, smiling and clapping. What a magical moment for everyone involved!

Pauline Shaw, our Director of Care & Service Development, with Nobby, one of the residents

A “Playlist for Life”


Music is increasingly important in today’s model of care. However, the Commission into Music and Dementia suggest that “high quality arts and music provision may currently only be available in just 5% of care homes.” We are very fortunate because we have a very active choir and we have a music club – which people attend each week and listen to music. The playlist for that is chosen by the residents.


Music is very beneficial for our residents. Recent research shows that it is particularly true for people living with dementia. In fact, with dementia the ability to function cognitively is diminished but there is an area of the brain that processes music and doesn’t seems to be affected by dementia – which is a fascinating fact. That’s probably the reason why people living with dementia can still sing songs: they might not be able to have a conversation with you but they can recall and still sing the lyrics of songs and even nursery rhymes.


My personal experience of this was when my mum was a resident of The Royal Star & Garter Homes, Surbiton. When she was towards the end of her journey, a couple of volunteers would sit with her and – this was not something I asked for – would read her nursery rhymes. It was very peaceful and it made me feel comforted and reassured as I could see she was peaceful and loved. At that point, my mother had stopped talking, but these rhymes really connected with her at a very fundamental level.


At The Royal Star & Garter Homes, we are trying to tap into residents’ experiences of music – from their childhood and through their adult life – to understand how music can benefit them, enhance their particular memories and how it makes them feel. Our weekly music club run by a committed volunteer who is passionate about music is so very popular, in addition to our regular choir; another volunteer who visits each week to play acoustic guitar and a sing along not to mention the impromptu singing and dancing which the care staff naturally engage in with residents as and when the moments present themselves.  It is another way of capturing the essence of somebody and understanding them as an individual, which is at the heart of everything we do.