Helen Pidd, Northern editor, The Guardian, Monday 30 June 2014
Photograph: Music therapist Greg Hanford and musicians from Manchester Camerata leading a Music in Mind session in Crewe for elderly people with dementia Jack Burrow and his wife Vera who joined him in the session. Photo credit: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Vera and Jack Burrows met as teenagers. "Childhood sweethearts," said Vera, brightly. "Then he dumped me when I was 17 and married someone else and we didn't see each other for 54 years. We were at a dance and he said: 'Is that you, Vera? I can recognise you from your thick ankles!'"
Despite this risky chat-up line, the pair were engaged within four months of their reunion. But five and a half years into their very happy marriage, Jack had a stroke while roasting a chicken. Ever since he's been living in Station House care home in Crewe. Now 86, he's lost his speech and has memory problems, but his bawdy sense of humour is intact.
Vera, a glamorous 84 with turquoise eye shadow and a cloud of blond hair, had accompanied Jack to a music session at the care home run by the music therapist Greg Hanford, director of MusAbility, and musicians from the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra. Overseen by Manchester University, it is part of a 10-week pilot project called Music in Mind, funded by Care UK, which runs 123 residential homes for elderly people. The aim is to find out if classical music can improve communication and interaction and reduce agitation for people in the UK with dementia – estimated to number just over 800,000 and set to rise rapidly as the population ages.
"The power of music therapy enables, excites, enthuses, entertains," one musician told New Economy. "It's like opening the window of a stuffy room and allowing scented fresh air to waft in, lifting the spirits."
Jack's session involved flautist Amina Hussain and French horn player Naomi Atherton, two of seven Camerata musicians trained in dementia awareness by the Alzheimer's Society, and a specialist nurse. Along with Hanford, two care workers and Jack (with Vera), were two other residents: Pete, who has only one leg, and Taff, a tattooed Welshman who was keen on the tambourine.
Proceedings began with Hanford strumming his guitar and singing hello to each participant in turn. Jack clucked a return greeting, Pete looked straight ahead and Taff managed a delayed hello.
To an outsider, it initially felt reminiscent of a mother and baby singing group. But by the end of the half hour, the men were engaged in a rather moving performance, with Pete gently tapping out a rhythm on a cymbal, Taff shaking a rainstick and Jack on bells, all accompanied by world-class horn and flute.
"There is a crossover, or at least parallels, between working with very young children and people with dementia," said Hanford afterwards. "The 'hello' song is something I use with all different kinds of people. But maintaining dignity is at the heart of what we are doing."
"We have to make sure we don't baby anyone," said Hussain. "We have to remember these are people who have led full lives, with jobs, families."
Atherton said the work brought big rewards for the most subtle developments: "Like Pete today – when I put the ocean drum in front of him, his fingers were twitching." Another time, a resident with a limited pattern of conversation finished her sentence in a way that showed she was engaged, she added.