Page last updated at 08:16 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 09:16 UK

Dementia music project to expand

By Jane Dreaper
BBC News health correspondent

David Hirschman, viola player with the Music for Life
David Hirschman says the challenge was "very demanding"

The writer and broadcaster, John Suchet, is backing a project which uses music to help people with dementia.

Suchet who revealed earlier this year that his wife Bonnie has the condition, is backing the Music for Life project.

The scheme has been running on a small scale for more than 15 years, but is now going into partnership with the prestigious Wigmore Hall in London.

Each course costs £6,500 to run. The partnership means the work will be able to expand.

I went to one of the project's workshops at Westmead residential home in west London.

It was the culmination of eight weekly sessions.

Three musicians - playing the cello, clarinet and viola - performed one hour's music.

Usually they play in orchestras - but during this interactive session, the audience of eight residents and their carers is expected to work as hard as the musicians.

The point is to use music to build up communication with the dementia patients.

Demanding option

David Hirschman, who plays the viola, said: "It's very demanding. It's certainly not an easy option. But it's also enormously satisfying.

"You notice tiny differences. It can be an achievement for someone to stay in the group for an hour, as opposed to walking about or shouting the place down."

The session begins with a simple exercise involving the names of residents and staff.

There is some sophisticated improvisation and the musicians do their utmost to engage with the residents, by making eye contact and sometimes kneeling at their feet.

And the older people join in with drums and xylophones.

It's almost as if you've given them life back - it's brilliant

There is a sense of enjoyment and fun. Some clap or wave their arms in time to the music as the rhythm picks up pace.

Mr Suchet said: "Music has always been such an important part of my life.

"But now that I am personally involved with dementia, I am realising how important it can be - in ways I never thought possible.

Suchet's wife Bonnie suffers with dementia

"Music for Life reaches people with dementia like nothing else can - which is thrilling in itself but this project also leaves a lasting legacy in that it supports care staff to develop their own professional skills."

Music For Life is the brainchild of Linda Rose, who wanted to encourage young musicians to work with older people.

She is delighted that the Wigmore Hall is taking the scheme under its wing.

She said: "We've been beavering away at this work and understanding the potential of it for 15 years.

"It is a terrific step and now we can show other people what's possible."

Of course, dementia is incurable - and a music workshop can't change that.

But at a debrief to mark the end of the sessions, staff at Westmead point out major improvements in some of their elderly charges.

One carer told the musicians: "One of our gentlemen talks to people now - in actual sentences - and he asks questions.

"Before he'd just grunt or use one syllable.

"And Mary, who used to spend about four days a week in bed, is up every day now.

"It's almost as if you've given them life back. It's brilliant."

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