CARE HOME DIARIES PART 3: ‘Dementia and The Sound of Music’

If you missed Part Two of our dementia care series it’s here, but for Part Three we’re having a little musical interlude. How can someone with a memory span of 30 seconds know all the words to Love Me Tender?

The care home day is measured not so much in hours and minutes but by meals and periods in between breakfast, lunch and supper. We have an Activities Co-ordinator at Hill View House and staff who are on the whole very good at thinking up ways of entertaining and stimulating our residents. Even those with very severe dementia seem to register some sense of enjoyment in having their nails done, their hair put in rollers or having a book or letter read out to them.

But one Saturday afternoon we had a few residents who, for various reasons, were not in the best of moods and looked a little bored. Entertainment was required, and yours truly was nominated for the not particularly enviable task of thinking something up.

As a social care trainer I have fifteen years experience devising fun ways of engaging groups of people for several hours at a time, but looking around the rather bored, grumpy faces staring back at me from the lobby where our residents tend to congregate, I was running out of ideas for things we hadn’t done in a while. There are some good resources I’ve used before such as nostalgia quizzes on DVD, but in our particular home it’s difficult to get more than a small group around any of the TVs. I needed something we could do in a large area that would be entertaining enough not to have my audience wandering off, falling asleep or constantly asking “is it time for tea yet?”

Word games? A colleague had done a really good one the other day so it was too early to try again, even if we had only got to ‘Boys names beginning with C’. Panicking, I rooted around in a cupboard. Bingo? Popular with some of the residents, but bingo needs prizes and the help of other staff to help out the less able players. My colleagues were all busy elsewhere and besides, I know for a fact that if I was in a care home and staff suggested bingo I’d be telling them exactly where they could stick their two fat ladies.

I was just about to give up and tell the shift leader my time really would be better spent spell-checking the care plans when I came across a red plastic wallet with a CD and an A4 sheet with song titles on it. ‘The Musical Quiz’ didn’t look too promising at first, but I was grasping at straws here. I knew at least a few of our residents could belt out the big tunes from Calamity Jane or High Society whenever we put on the the DVDs, but would a session of ‘Name that Tune’ be a step too far for people who couldn’t remember what they’d had for lunch?

So ten minutes later I’d gathered a CD player, some cups, a jug of squash and a dozen people with a combined age of one thousand and a bit. And an hour and a half after that, we had, I think it’s fair to say, created a bit of a buzz. Yes, let’s repeat that. A buzz. In a care home. 

As resources go, The Musical Quiz was decidedly low-tech. Two discs each with thirty brief clips of well known tunes, each of which was numbered and announced, and repeated twice to help those who didn’t quite get it the first time. All I had to do was press the Play button, let the clip play once or twice, add a little showbiz-lite, crack some woeful jokes and wait for my makeshift choir to burst into song. Well, it wasn’t quite as easy as that, and that’s why the session worked so well. Some of the tunes were instantly familiar and picked up in seconds. Others needed a little more work. “Hang on, hang on – it’s on the tip of my tongue!” said Bert, as Mary would ‘la-la-la’ the tune until yet another of the group would suddenly grasp the first line as if retrieving the words from a radio show she’d last heard in 1945.

These were people whose dementia normally taunted and frustrated them for not being able to remember words and phrases that could and should trip off the tongue. But for this afternoon at least the effort of trawling deep-seated archives of memory (stored well away from those parts of the brain most damaged by dementia) was a pleasure, not a pain. It’s been well known for years how regular and frequent brain ‘exercise’ can slow down the progression of dementias such as Alzheimers Disease, but this wasn’t really therapy. This was fun.

Among the group were people for whom getting dressed is impossible without the help of staff. Some need constant reminders that meals don’t need paying for, or that they now live at Hill View and their daughter isn’t coming to take them home. Some have short-term memories so brief they forget the answer to a question within a few moments and have to ask the same question again. And again. And again.

But somewhere in each of those minds was a jukebox of songs. Songs that had perhaps lain dormant for decades but brought back to life by a few seconds of playback on a CD player. Occasionally I asked “When was the last time you sung this?’” or “Anyone remember who had a hit with that?” but nobody seemed to know. It didn’t matter. It’s the sheer joy of a good tune that had our early hominid ancestors building flutes out of deer antlers, me bouncing around the mosh pit to Bauhaus in 1979, and care home residents belting out songs in 2013 that were loved and sung by them, their families and friends long before I was born.

Now that’s what I call music.

Connor Kinsella
Lead Trainer, JCK Training

Next time: CARE HOME DIARIES PART 4: ‘Pictures on a Bedroom Wall’ where dementia makes my jaw drop


For further information on Dementia training and services, contact JCK Training at or call 0208 133 9458

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