Musical Connections is an interactive music programme for older people living in City of York Council’s residential care homes, two of which cater specifically for people with dementia.
The council’s Adult Services department has sought to develop it into an integral part of the care on offer to residents and their families by working with Community Musician, Fiona Chapman, who conceived the programme following her own academic research, and who has day-to-day responsibility for running and developing it.
Such has been the success of Musical Connections that, in October 2010, it was rewarded with a regional (Yorkshire and Humber) NHS Health and Social Care award for work in the area of Mental Health and Wellbeing.
The programme is based around weekly sessions, during which residents are encouraged to sing, dance, play instruments, improvise and experiment with rhythm and sound, as well as learning, creating and performing new songs. Students, school-children and community groups are encouraged to participate within the programme, either via performance or, more usually, via participatory work, in which residents and their visitors undertake musical activities together.
Key to the impact of the work has been the intention not just to provide residents with a pleasant diversion, but to engage them in a focused, purposeful endeavour; they are encouraged to explore their own musicality, and to participate in a wide variety of musical and artistic experiences designed to challenge traditional stereotypes about older people and what it is possible to achieve in a care home setting. Contrary to most expectations, residents are open to all kinds of musical activities and genres; the traditional ‘old’ songs are used simply as a confidence-builder and a springboard to other, more creative work based around, for example, reggae, Bollywood, Native American, African, Hawaiian, Vietnamese or rap. Equally, traditional percussion instruments are often discarded in favour of more unusual ones, such as boomwhackers, windchimes, bins, bird-tweeters and zoomtubes.
While it has long been known that residents with dementia or short-term memory loss are able to reproduce the ‘old songs’, the Musical Connections work has sought to explore ways in which residents can strive for greater achievements. Of particular interest has been their ability to compose and learn new songs, and to sing in harmony. They have also performed African and Native American songs in a number of different settings with care staff, schoolchildren and a community choir.
Feedback and comments
The sessions have proved hugely successful, and some participants are able to articulate clearly the benefits they feel they derive from them. These focus on stimulation, empowerment, achievement and community, as well as the opportunity to enjoy and explore music, express oneself and interact with others. Unexpected opportunities for learning are highly valued, and contact and interaction with younger generations is much enjoyed.
Relatives, parents of participating schoolchildren and other visitors are also encouraged to take part, and are equally positive about what they and their loved ones gain from what they perceive as a constructive and enjoyable experience.
The enthusiastic participation of care staff in the sessions is hugely important to their success, and helps to put patients and carers on a more equal footing, as both are challenged to embark on unfamiliar and challenging experiences together. Staff comment regularly on how much they enjoy the sessions, as well as the opportunity to see residents in a different light.
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As this work becomes ever more creative and experimental, residents continue to rise to the challenge; their determination to grasp the opportunities on offer shows an undiminished appetite for sharing, learning and achieving – Musical Connections gives them the chance to do all three.
Fiona Chapman - April 2011
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