NOV 2019: Music and memory: how dancing brings families together

Health, Great Baddow

We speak to Debbie Marks, the founder of Frederick Douglas Performing Arts Academy and host of our much-loved music and movement sessions at Baycroft

Music has an incredible effect on almost everybody, but it can be forgotten about in the complexities of later-life care. Debbie has set out to change that, and to showcase just how profound an impact music and dance can have for people of all ages.

Debbie set up Frederick Douglas with her daughter, having worked in nursery management before the move. After a friend working as the managing director of a care home suggested that she did a trial session of music and dance there, Debbie says she took “a leap of faith.”

That leap into the unknown was fifteen years ago – and now the company’s eight members of staff run between 60 and 70 sessions every month.

What happens at a music and movement session?

The session will begin with a warm-up and a stretch, then around three songs with props to dance along with, and a song they can all join in with. At the end, the staff will blow bubbles. It might seem an unusual ending: but each resident is given a fly swat to try and hit as many bubbles as they can, and it’s a surprisingly fun and effective way for the residents to get their arms moving, Debbie says.

Music and movement sessions are all about having fun. Debbie’s team, always two at time, will make sure each session has a theme. One of the team will lead the session, showing the residents how to move to the music, and one will walk around and make sure no one is left behind.

One of Debbie’s favourite sessions is her ‘summertime special’, where residents can dance along to summer tunes, resplendent in hula skirts – fastened with Velcro for ease – and sailors’ hats. The gentlemen, Debbie says, “do seem to enjoy those hats!”

“It doesn’t take long for residents to feel involved, and that they’re enjoying the session”, Debbie says. With two staff there, one can go round and help anyone who might be struggling or reluctant to join in.

Why is music so important?

It’s lovely for residents to watch entertainers or musicians perform, but in these sessions it’s the interaction that is crucial. “It’s great to get residents actively involved and engaged,” Debbie says.

“We have seen the difference in people, from a glint in the eye or a smile, even just a shake of a maraca,” Debbie says. “Ability varies, but you can always tell when they’re enjoying just feeling a part of it.”

In fact, there are huge benefits to be had in music therapy, particularly for those with dementia. As Dementia UK note, music accesses a different part of the brain to, for example, language – and so even in medically advanced cases, music could have a profound impact.1

Sometimes during a sing-along or a dance, a resident might have a particular memory that went along with the song they are playing. “Sometimes,” Debbie says, “there are tears – and of course we always go over to quietly see what we can do to help. But nine times in ten, they’re happy tears, and the resident just loves hearing the song again.”

One of the most moving parts of running these sessions is seeing a resident with dementia singing along. “There’s nothing that even compares to music for that,” Debbie says, recalling some of the most poignant moments that she’s had working in care. “I wish I’d started this years before I did.”

What should people do at home, like this?

Debbie’s advice is simple. If your relative has memories of particular music, play them those songs – or if you’re not sure, try a few genres that they might like. Turn off the TV, Debbie says firmly, and sing to them or with them.

“You can see recognition in their eyes,” Debbie says. “Don’t expect miracles – but that glint in the eye can be all the results you could ever need.”

1 Dementia UK, ‘Music therapy’, May 2017, https://www.dementiauk.org/music-therapy/