Live music bringing light and life into care homes

Since graduating from my Community Music studies, most of my community music work has been with older people in care and nursing homes across Sussex. What made me want to make music with this group of people? I like old people. They've been around for a long time and have a lot of amazing stories and life lessons to share with us. And I can't think of a better way to get the stories flowing than music!

But in all seriousness, I had been reading and hearing loads about a new epidemic in the country, and the world...no I'm not talking about obesity, or heart disease, or screen addictions (although they are all very important and real things that are going on) It was the epidemic of loneliness. And the fact that it is our older people in society who are the loneliest. This applies to older people living in their own homes as well as those in care homes. I've often gone into a care home's communal living space to find many residents sitting and watching tv not speaking a word to each other. Also many residents stay in their rooms all day, often too ill or even too shy to come out and socialise. The longer you live, the more likely it is that you will experience the loss of a loved one and/or close friends. The community that you may have been a part of for your entire life sometimes deteriorates due to these reasons, which can lead to a person feeling very isolated and alone.

a 'typical' music making session I run in a care home may look like this....

At the beginning of a music session, often but not always, the energy of the room can be quite low. Judge Rinder on the tele, with a few residents sat looking through it, occasionally nodding off. Obviously it is not like this in every care home, and of course each day is different, depending on the moods of the residents. But that is often a sight I'm greeted with when I walk into a care home's communal space. The residents don't have to stay for the music, but usually I find they are intrigued by the array of instruments that start emerging from my bag and then get placed in accessible areas around the room. As I'm setting up I'll be humming a tune, something familiar such as You Are My Sunshine, which already begins to change the energy in the room (tele is off at this point). Usually I'll hear one or two voices join in with my humming. The music-making happens quite organically and gently. It is not thrust upon the residents, unlike a musical performance, this is making music WITH rather than FOR. Once there are a few people singing the lyrics, I might subtly invite a member of staff to pick up a shaker to play...building on the soundscape. Then I will grab my guitar and more instruments may be picked up from around the room. What seems like 'suddenly'... we are all making music together. The change in energy and atmosphere in the room is palpable. It feels lighter. Residents have sat up in their chairs. Their eyes are open. Depending on what the residents want to do and where the energy level is at, we may continue singing another familiar song or we may improvise a piece with the instruments, playing different rhythms on drums and with shakers. It's a very free-flowing, relaxed, creative and safe space.

For the residents who are too ill or not feeling sociable to come into the communal areas, I will go with a member of staff and take the music to their bedside. Often there will be family members visiting. It's a lovely thing to share the music-making with the resident's family. The family may see something in their loved one that the music brings out of them, that normally they wouldn't see. This can be very moving for all involved. An example of this was when a wife of one of the residents was visiting her husband and myself and a member of staff came by the room and asked if they'd like some music. They requested a Frank Sinatra song so we sang Fly Me To The Moon together. They held hands and swayed to the music. The resident got quite emotional at the end of the song and squeezed his wife's hand. Through a shaky voice and misty eyes and smile, he said:

"That's just made my day that has...thank you"

From my many care home musical experiences, I've seen that music allows the residents to connect- and to connect on many different levels.

Connect with themselves- with the long and fascinating life they've lived, who they were, who they still are inside.

Connect with their fellow residents- as we sing songs together, memories and stories then bubble up to the surface and residents find common interests and closer bonds are formed. I've seen many a time, after singing a certain song a resident will comment 'That song was playing when I met my husband', then another resident will say 'Me too!' then they will be off, chatting about the dances they used to go to and where they grew up, etc.

Connect with the care staff - involved staff may also have memories and stories emerge as a result of music-making that they share with residents, meaning staff and residents get to know each other on a deeper level, one that goes beyond medication dispensing, bathing, feeding and the other daily tasks that consume the resident-staff relationship. Care staff also get to learn more about the residents lives through their music choices and the sharing of heir memories.

Live music making in care homes provides some light, love and laughter which often evokes memories and ultimately leads to conversation in a sometimes bleak environment. The impact music has in this setting is extremely moving. One man once said to me after we sang the song 'Maggie', he remembers being 24 years old and holding his new born son over his shoulder and singing him to sleep with the song Maggie. Another woman got quite emotional whilst we were singing Que Sera Sera, when I spoke to her after the session she said 'We think we don't remember, we think it's all gone, lost...but we do remember, it is there."

I fully respect that prescription medication has a place in the healthcare of older people, but it never ceases to amaze and astound me the powerful effect that music has on people's well-being and quality of life, in allowing people to connect with who they were, and who they still are inside. It is so magical to be a part of this experience for people living in care homes.

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