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Using music to help unlock memories

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: October 11, 2012

  • Val Stagg leads the singing.

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REPEATING five words that have just been sung to you seems simple enough, but for people suffering from dementia you might as well have asked them to work out a complex mathematical sum.

As Alzheimer's spreads, it wipes out short-term memory, making it difficult to remember what happened five minutes ago or what you ate for tea the night before.

In Penzance, Singing for the Brain sessions are helping to unlock the creative part of the mind, using music to retrieve memories that once were lost.

"My husband's memory from years ago is fine but he can't remember what he did this morning," said Lorna, who added that partner Tom was diagnosed with vascular dementia five years ago.


"But it had been going on for ten years before. He was nasty, physically and verbally, and that was completely out of character."

She said that the couple, who also visit memory cafés, were new to Singing for the Brain, having taken part twice.

"This is really great, it is a lifeline for me and he really enjoys the singing," she said.

"Alzheimer's is very solitary and there is a lot of stigma attached to it and vascular dementia. But this gets him out and I have made some good friends through this."

The sessions see dementia sufferers and their carers get together for two hours of singing, designed to build on memories of songs and the life stories that come with them.

With a quick glance around the room, I spot the concentration etched on one woman's face as she tries to remember the words to a song that she obviously used to know. Then her face lights up and she sings the rest of the verse with a pleased smile on her face.

"I have seen with some of the people who are a bit further on that they suddenly recognise the words," said Barbara Johnston, one of the volunteers at the Singing for the Brain sessions.

"Maybe they haven't been singing at all and then something clicks in the brain and they start singing along. That is the most rewarding thing."

The serious message of preserving those vital memories is hidden behind the fun and laughter that the session brings out in its group.

A man who can't remember his left hand from his right is gently helped by his wife and both laugh along as they try to keep up with the routine the whole group is acting out.

Alongside them, each and every person is smiling and for two hours, as they sing and clap, their symptoms recede.

"It is so lovely," said singing leader Val Stagg. "I remember when I was training that I couldn't tell who were the people with dementia and who were the carers and volunteers, it is so inclusive."

The group leader explained that she plans a series of songs to incorporate memory and movement.

"I love to see how this brings people together, increasing communication and fun," she said.

"This works with the right side of the brain.

"That side is usually quite active but it gets more active with what we are doing."

The weekly sessions, which are held at the one stop shop, St Clare, also provide a way for people with dementia, along with their carers, to express themselves and socialise with others in a fun and supportive setting.

"We think it is wonderful," said Barbara who comes to the group each week with carer Derick.

"I remember all the singing but this is probably something I will start to forget. But I like singing and we enjoy ourselves and have some laughs with it."

Organised by the Alzheimer's Society, the Penzance group meets every Monday at St Clare from 2pm to 4pm.

On October 22 people with dementia, their carers and singing volunteers will celebrate the group's first anniversary.

For more information and to find out how you can get involved, call 01872 277963.

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