A singer from Kidderminster uses old wartime songs to help her husband cope with his dementia, and she is encouraging others to do the same.
Marion and Eric Green, share a great love of music, having toured with Black Country group ‘Cum Sing Wi’ We’, for over 20 years. The 30-strong group used to perform across the country and raised over £170,000 for charities such as Cancer Research and the British Legion.
While they no longer tour with the group, Marion, 81, and husband Eric, 82, still perform duets at Care UK’s Brook Court care home in Kidderminster, where Eric lives, much to the delight of other residents. Eric still remembers all the words to ‘Oh Danny Boy’ and other classics, and the singing invokes Eric’s memory and helps ease any tension and anxiety, a common symptom of dementia.
Connecting in others ways, whether it’s through music, old photos or memorabilia, can become a vital way for someone living with dementia to express themselves and communicate. This is why Care UK have produced ‘Listen, Talk, Connect’, a guide compiled by care workers, dementia experts and families of people with dementia, offering practical advice for people trying to engage with their loved ones.
Care UK’s Head of Dementia, Maizie Mears-Owen, who worked on the guide, explains more: “It never gets any less heart-breaking seeing someone who once was a loving parent, or caring partner feel like they are losing the connection with their family. Visits become less frequent as people worry about how to talk to someone living with dementia. Finding a connection that works is vital. Singing and music is a great form of expression, and if it’s a shared passion, as with Marion and Eric, it can help maintain a strong bond.”
Lindsay McHale, music therapist at Nordoff Robbins, the UK’s leading music therapy charity, comments on the benefits of music for those living with dementia. She says: "People with dementia can become disoriented and confused. This can provoke anxiety and lead to feelings of isolation, especially if they lose the ability to speak. Music makes sense to people in a way that words don’t. Through music people with dementia can communicate without the need for words and this can be a huge release.
Embracing past songs has proved therapeutic for the couple, who, like many others, initially struggled with Eric’s condition.
Marion knew that Eric had dementia long before he was diagnosed. He was becoming absent-minded, going out for walks and forgetting his way home. He also tripped over several times - once down the stairs of their home.
It was after undergoing various tests - and even receiving an initial misdiagnosis of epilepsy - that Eric was finally told of his condition. Despite it being a huge blow for the couple, Marion recalls they both felt a sense of relief.
Marion says: “The news was devastating, but not at all surprising. It also helped to explain some of Eric’s behaviour. Having a diagnosis meant we could both move on and learn to live with Eric’s dementia.”
At first, Marion cared for Eric in their home, but when his condition became too much to cope with, Eric moved into Brook Court, where Marion visits every day. It took Eric time to adapt to his new home, but Marion soon discovered that keeping things as normal as possible helped hugely, including still singing with Eric.
Despite Erik’s deteriorating condition, his love of singing hasn’t faded. It brings back memories for both Eric and the residents at Brook Court, transporting them to a bygone era.
Evoking past memories is crucial for helping those with dementia, as well as accepting the person’s perception as reality, as Maizie explains: “When a person has dementia, they can live in moments of the past, process sights and sounds in ways that are difficult for us to perceive, and forget things shared and treasured memories. This may mean that they see things differently and say things that don’t appear to make sense to us. But instead of ‘arguing’ against them, it is vital to understand where they are coming from. This is the one piece of advice that families of people with dementia say that they wish they knew before.”
Marion initially found Eric’s perception difficult to understand. As she explains: “Eric used to be a police sergeant, so he keeps thinking he needs to go to court. I initially found this upsetting and kept disagreeing. But now I’ve learned not to correct him, but accept what he was saying, before bringing him back to the present when he was ready.
“Understanding that dementia is a part of Eric’s life, but not his whole life, made things so much easier for both of us. Of course it will always be there, but learning to reach out in other ways has provided hope. I would say to anyone in the same position to do the same. Find the common ground, like I did with Eric. For us it’s singing, and we’ll keep singing for as long as we can.”