Working directly with people who are living with dementia and their caregivers has taught us a number of valuable life lessons.
We would like to share two of these lessons with you.
By Tom and Karen Brenner
Alzheimer's Reading Room
We observed very early in our work in dementia that people who hadn’t spoken for a very long time could still often sing.
Not only could they sing, they remembered all the words to songs! It was amazing to see people who sat mute for months at a time suddenly light up and start singing with gusto and joy.
Once we observed this phenomenon, we began to build lots of different exercises around singing.
We use the procedural memory system in our Montessori approach to dementia care and believe in the importance of putting something meaningful in a person’s hands.
With this in mind, we created song books in large print for the choirs we formed in long term care homes and adult day centers. These song books could be based on holidays or hymns or be built around themes (marching songs, love songs, comedy songs, and place songs).
It does not matter if the singers are good, it only matters that they sing!
Recent scientific research backs up the idea that singing can lift up the spirits of the people singing.
This research demonstrates that singing (especially group singing) releases several mood lifting hormones: endorphins that create the “feel good” biochemical, oxytocin, the hormone that brings forth feelings of love and connection.
Both of these biochemicals lessen feelings of depression and loneliness.
As well, group singing tends to lower levels of cortisol, the stress related hormone. Research also proved that singing together syncs multiple heart rates. This sort of synchronization has the same calming effect as would a session of group meditation.
Older people come from a generation who sang together often; in church, in school, on street corners.
If we tap into this experience of group singing, we give our elders the opportunity to feel calmer, happier, more at peace and to bond with their fellow residents, families and friends. The French philosopher, Voltaire, famously wrote, “Life is a shipwreck and we must remember to sing in the lifeboats!”
Here is an excerpt from a recent article in Time Magazine about the research into the effects of singing:
What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.”
– Stacy Horn, Singing Changes Your Brain
Another very helpful lesson we have learned over the years is the dynamic impact of cross generational contact. There is a sort of magic that happens when younger people and older people come together to work on a project. We have developed many exercises to promote this intergenerational work.
Last Thanksgiving we partnered with a high school for at-risk learners and a long term care home to create a Thanksgiving card project together. The front of the cards were decorated with autumn leaf rubbings created by the younger and older people working together. The sentiment inside the card was dictated by the elders and written down by the teenagers. The question we asked the elders to answer was: What are you thankful for? As the project evolved, the younger people asked to be able to add their thoughts about gratitude to the cards. There was this beautiful moment when the elders and the adolescents were sharing those things in their lives that meant the most to them. As it turned out, they were often grateful for the very same things!
We would like to share with you a video that exemplifies the power of intergenerational projects and the magic of singing together. It is a ten minute film from Canada in which a group of teenagers form a choir with a group of people who have dementia and their caregivers.
It is a beautiful and moving little film, but be warned, you will need a box of tissues! The film can be found on You Tube and is entitled, “Intergenerational Choir Project.”
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Tom Brenner is a gerontologist who specializes in creating dementia care programs that are strength based and positive leaning. His wife, Karen, is a Montessori educator who co-founded a Montessori school for children who are deaf. The Brenner’s have worked together for the past twenty years researching and implementing the application of the Montessori Method for positive dementia care.
After years of working directly with people living with dementia and their caregivers, the Brenners published a book about their work, You Say Goodbye and We Say Hello: The Montessori Method for Positive Dementia Care. Tom and Karen travel throughout the United States presenting workshops, training programs and speaking engagements about their uplifting and positive approach to dementia care.
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