Dementia is a cruel degenerative condition that is particularly taxing on people caring for affected family members. The Salvation Army has long been supporting people with dementia and their carers through its 13 residential care homes, befriending services, day centres, and social activities. Now the organisation is pioneering a unique programme that uses singing to help people with dementia reconnect with lost memories and gives an outlet to carers in need of support and relief.
Not just a wing and prayer
The programme is called Singing by Heart and is designed to trigger memories and happy feelings in those living with dementia. A lot of thought has been put into the programme which includes popular hymns and songs best suited to reach people in the groups.
Churches must meet certain criteria before they can run a Singing by Heart group. The most important of which is completing a ‘Dementia Friends’ course overseen by the Alzheimer’s Society. Churches must also obtain training videos and a lyric book.
The format has been carefully crafted. Each song starts with a passage of scripture and finishes with a prayer.
Singing is good for the soul
Lee Highton-Nicholls, the regional specialist for The Salvation Army’s older people’s ministries in Birmingham, has been credited with proposing the idea. Lee is something of a dementia specialist with 12 years of experience in dementia care behind him. His idea was to use The Salvation Army’s musical legacy to bring together all people affected by the condition so they could meet others experiencing similar problems, share experiences, get support, and have a good time while doing so.
Lee observed that singing has the ability to connect people in a unique way.
“We are very excited to see Singing by Heart being rolled out to groups across The Salvation Army to connect with people living with dementia and their carers. We believe it offers people the opportunity to enjoy singing together in a relaxed and fun way; whilst offering a way of connecting spiritually through prayer and scripture readings.”
Loving the overlooked
Andrew Wileman, Assistant Director of Older People’s Services at The Salvation Army reaffirms the organisation’s belief that everyone has equal value and is loved by God. It ensures that the social needs of people with dementia are met through weekly group sessions that include lunches, clubs, and activities.
“These activities are not only important in communities to help combat loneliness and isolation, but we also see older people with dementia and their carers coming to us in need of support,” said Wileman.
“We believe Singing by Heart can be used by The Salvation Army churches and centres, as well as other church denominations, to connect with people who live with dementia, while also providing them and their carers a social situation and support network.”
The proof is in the pudding
The programme has made a definite difference in the lives of dementia sufferers and their carers.
According to Bill, who has been bringing his wife, Anita, to the sessions since October 2017, Singing by Heart is the one day in the month when he sees Anita full of life and fully engaged in an activity. For two years Anita has suffered from anxiety and memory loss, but Bill says, “It’s amazing to see her being sociable with others, and it’s like she’s back to her previous self. I’ve found it difficult to get any positive responses from Anita in the past but the enthusiasm and humour of the leaders at Singing by Heart is the key to its success … Every month our daughter comes with us to the session, and it’s seeing Anita smile again that keeps us coming back to spend this special time together as a family.”
Ivy attends the Singing by Heart sessions on her own, but it’s well worth it as she really looks forward to the time. “I’m a firm believer that everybody loves music and the happiness it can bring.”
She adds, “My mother suffered for many years with dementia and I really think she would have enjoyed a group like this. Seeing everyone connect with the music in the room is wonderful. Caring for someone with dementia can be so hard and sometimes a smile is all you want. That is what Singing by Heart can offer.”