A couple of Fridays ago I visited the Singing for the Brain group in Old Basing – led by Sue, an experienced singing facilitator. It was a good opportunity to see some best practice in action in the area of singing with people living with dementia.
The group was quite large – over thirty, including visiting facilitators like me, carers, volunteers and Alzheimer’s Society employees. I particularly enjoyed the feeling of ‘expansiveness’ that the facilitator created; it was a space where anything was possible – and yet it was a safe space too. This is something I am looking to better achieve in my practice, and I think it will come as I gain in confidence and clarity.
Singing for the Brain is an idea which many facilitators and local Alzheimer’s Society branches have picked up and run with. It’s been so successful it is now becoming a core service of the charity and a new specification has been written to help guide the groups to have the most positive effect, leaving enough flexibility to take into account each groups’ uniqueness.
The main message I took from discussion with other facilitators is what Singing for the Brain is not: it’s not a sing-a-long! Trying to uncover what it actually is is more challenging as the framework has been developed through years of practice and research and includes complex ideas about emotional memory and something called neuroplasticity (I’ll let you know when I know!). At the simplest level, Singing for the Brain sessions must have a beginning, a middle and an end – this might sound obvious, but finding a good song to end on, or a way of rounding of or cooling down a session can be trickier than it first seems. It is important to use movement, for a variety of reasons: for gentle aerobic exercise, and to keep joints moving, to help participants remember words, and evoke feelings and memories, and to encourage connections between both sides of the brain by using movements which cross the central line of the body – for example at Old Basing, the facilitator used small beanbags which the participants passed from hand to hand in time to a pulse.
Obviously singing is the central part of the session, and the majority of the time is taken up singing songs, either from memory or from song sheets, and also incorporating harmony through part-songs, rounds and partner songs (2 songs sung on top of each other). There is also a strong sense of pulse running throughout, which helps connect people (this makes me think about entrainment theory) and gives a backdrop to activities such as tongue-twisters and rhythmic ditties such as Hickory Dickory Dock.
I’m really excited about the possibilities of Singing for the Brain because of the improved social, physical and mental health of people living with dementia, a disease for which a medical cure seems a long way off, but for which social coping strategies are being put in place by the fantastic work of The Alzheimer’s Society.
If you want to join in the conversation about singing with people living with dementia please leave a comment or join the WellSing network where there is a new discussion thread on this topic.