The power of music to help people with dementia is revealed in a powerful new BBC documentary starting on Thursday
Line of Duty star Vicky McClure already knew that music could have an almost magical impact on people living with dementia. For Vicky saw the power of music with her own eyes, while caring for her grandmother Iris who had dementia.
“I watched my nana being taken away by dementia – it’s one of the hardest things to watch a family member go through,” recalls Vicky. “But I also saw how music helped, changing her mood, and for a while bringing us back the old nana. Towards the end of her life, my grandmother couldn’t leave the house. My mum would sing and she would spark up. You’d get a glimmer of hope.”
So she was delighted to be involved in a two part BBC1 documentary series Our Dementia Choir which examines the many ways music can help people with dementia, and those who love them. “I’m so pleased to be given the opportunity to be involved with this project,” says Vicky. “This is important television. We will all discover more about the incredible effects music can have on people living with dementia.”
The documentary follows the journey of 20 people aged between 31 and 87, all from Vicky’s home town of Nottingham, who have dementia. The series shows Vicky as she recruits ex musicians and singers with dementia and hears their poignant stories.
With support from specialists at Nottingham University, the people she meets form a choir and band and, after much rehearsing, put on an incredible performance for an audience of more than 1000 people – quite a few of whom (Vicky included) find it hard to hold back the tears…”It was a stand-out, magical day,” she says.
The choir sings a selection of well-known hits such as Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations, Stand By Me by Ben E. King and a very poignant version of The Beatle’s hit In My Life – one of Vicky’s personal favourites. “The lyrics are so relevant for somebody living with dementia,” she says. “For me, it was the obvious choice. Some of contributors had heard it, which was great because it’s a familiar song, and some hadn’t heard it and very quickly came to love it. And now that song, for me and for them, has as whole new meaning because it’s our song.”
Both the band and choir are also supported by a range of specialists, including doctor and scientists exploring how and why music therapy can be so helpful on the dementia journey.
“The thing I found most interesting was the fact that a healthy brain fires up in the same way a dementia brain does when you hear music” says Vicky, 35. “There’s this feeling that when you get dementia that’s it, your brain just stops working, but that’s not true. Obviously, you can see that there are certain parts of a healthy brain that function very differently, but from the musical side of things, it’s very similar.
“One of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite artists, Bob Marley, is: ‘One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
Vicky was so impressed by the benefits of the Nottingham dementia choir that she now believes the Government should be doing more to fund choirs like this nationwide for people with dementia. “The funding is the hardest part, to have the choir running all the time, they’re not cheap,” she says. “It’s free to sing, but to have that routine and providing tea and coffee and some-where to do it, it costs money. It can be cheap and manageable, but it’s not free. (We) need the backing of councils and the Government.”
Several months have passed since Vicky’s choir gave its final performance and she admits that sadly some members have deteriorated quite a lot. “There have of course been changes in people since we filmed. Some are in homes now and they are all deteriorating, rapidly for some,” she says. “It’s quite frightening.”
But the overall message is one of hope. “This isn’t just a tragic tale of people living with dementia,” she adds. “It’s enjoyable and I want young people to watch it as much as I want the older generation to watch it. There’s so much we can do to help each other.”
Our Dementia Choir starts on Thursday May 2 on BBC 1 and continues on May 9.