Singing for Health Guides: Singing and People with Dementia

Singing and people with Dementia, Trish Vella BurrowsI was contacted a while back by a gentleman from Chattanooga in Tennessee wanting some advice on running singing groups for people living with dementia. I blithely emailed back saying that a blog post was in the pipeline on this very subject. Which was true, but the blog post grew longer and longer (there is so much to say) and the draft is still sitting here on my computer…. oops!

So imagine my delight in discovering the Sidney de Haan Centre for Arts and Health Research have produced several guides to singing with people with different health needs: dementia, COPD, mental health, Parkinson’s.

The dementia guide starts with a thorough introduction to dementia in the UK – approximate numbers, economic implications, current dementia policy, and the common symptoms that people might experience, with an emphasis on the unique impact of the disease on each person. There is also a brief explanation of the different models of understanding health – important for anyone working in supporting people living with chronic and/or long-term degenerative conditions. Clearly linked to Antonovsky’s ‘salutogenic’ model of health are the key areas that singing can address in people living with dementia: overall sense of wellbeing, communication, cognition and understanding, living in the world with others, organisation and structure, skills, and physical ability.

The guide goes on to evidence the areas of benefit through case studies of different projects and research literature. This, combined with guidance on how to conduct monitoring and evaluation provides support for funding proposals, an area also covered in the guide.

The pages on practice (pages 15-17) contain a comprehensive description of the skills and attributes needed to deliver successful, enjoyable singing groups, as well as suggested repertoire. The descriptions of the development of a song, for example, adding a chorus, a descant or a solo certainly helped me reflect on how I might continue to creatively use songs in this work. Becoming a music for health practitioner relies so much upon experiential learning, and there really isn’t any substitute for observation and supported learning with a mentor. Not to mention personal ongoing reflection.

This guide made me feel really fired up about the power of music for supporting the health and wellbeing of people living with dementia, and I’m looking forward to reading the other guides available for download on the website.





8 thoughts on “Singing for Health Guides: Singing and People with Dementia

  1. Rosanna Mead

    Thank you very much for sharing this Rachel, looks like a great resource. Will be on my to list to read tomorrow! Rosanna

  2. Wayne Evans

    Wow! Thanks! We will have our first team meeting tomorrow for planning, so this is perfect timing on your part. Hoping to have the 1st group sing Feb 21. I believe this will be a very valuable activity for the people with dementia as well as their caregivers, and I am expecting that the idea will spread here as it has in the UK. I’ll keep you posted on our progress. Wayne in Chattanooga, TN

  3. Trish VB

    Hi Rachel/All. As author of the Dementia Guide, it is very pleasing indeed to hear that it has been of some use. I have been asked to design a new Guide that has more of a practical focus (my take on activities/delivery/development etc.) and I would like to include examples of activities that other practitioners have found successful (accredited to the provider of course). Also, any advice on what you think people would like from a practical guide would be most welcome. I look forward to hearing from you and others.
    B/W Trish VB

  4. Rachel Post author

    Hi Trish – Congratulations again on writing such a super guide and thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. Plans for another, more practical guide would be very welcome.

    The Institute of Education have already published a Facilitator’s Handbook for music-making with older adults. It has some great sections on facilitation style, communication, session planning, use of space etc and there are some practical exercises throughout the guide. What I like about this guide is that it presents a range of options and questions to the reader, and helps the reader think through their decision-making and actions during a session – rather than being too directive. At the back there are links to videos, and a whole list of resources and activities…. However, this guide is not specific to singing with people with dementia, so while it’s got great content, it might be a little overwhelming for someone who, say, volunteers at a care home and wants to get something simple off the ground.

    I’ve also written a ‘trouble-shooting’ post of sorts here which includes some activities and anecdotes.

    Warm wishes


  5. Wayne Evans

    Thanks again for the reference to the Singing and People with Dementia Guide. It is a wonderful offering by by Trish Vella-Burrows and has been a huge aid in organizing our singing group. Our original date to begin was a bit aggressive and we have returned to reality with a date of Mar 11th. I would like to ask about instrumental accompaniment in typical Singing for the Brain sessions. The videos that I have viewed of these sessions are mostly a cappella or occasionally with a guitar. Is there a specific reason for this, aside from perhaps the availability of an instrumentalist, or a piano or keyboard? Wayne in Chattanooga, TN

  6. Rachel Post author

    Hello Wayne –
    Speaking from personal experience, I tend to either lead group singing unaccompanied, or provide a basic guitar accompaniment. I prefer to use the guitar, because I can easily be part of the circle of singers, although if you use a keyboard or electric piano you could set it up so the accompanist/facilitator can see over the top of the keyboard to the participants. An upright piano can make things more difficult! I have found when I’ve tried to accompany on piano I’ve felt quite detached, although this may also be because I am more comfortable playing the guitar than the piano, and I have to concentrate more on what I’m doing. Sometimes a volunteer has provided piano accompaniment, and that’s been an experience people have enjoyed – especially in order to capture a particular feel of a song, for example A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. There are some activities and songs which lend themselves to unaccompanied singing – rounds and chants for example. Aiming to give a group a variety of musical experiences means you can try lots of different approaches – keep experimenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>