Community Music Therapy to Support the Relationship between Family Carers and People Living with Dementia: A Pilot Project

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Maharani Allan
MMusTher (Hons), BA, NZ RMTh Private practice

Keywords: Dementia, Community Music Therapy groups, relationships, identity music, family carers


Currently, 70,000 people are living with dementia in New Zealand. This is expected to rise to 170,212 in 2050, with an associated cost of $1.7 billion climbing to $5 billion. The people who face living with this disease face the accompanying effects on cognition, and declining psychological and behavioural function. Those that support them face the challenges that come from a changing relationship, from that of partner to carer. When relationships are resilient, families are able to cope for longer in their homes with less support from the government, making sense both economically and for quality of life. The purpose of this project was to look at whether community-based group music therapy sessions would support the relationship needs of couples, where one is affected by the onset of dementia and the other has become the carer. Four couples were recruited (eight participants), with one couple dropping out, reducing numbers to three couples (6 participants) from week 5. The ten sessions were run weekly for 1½ hours by a trained music therapist, with two volunteers supporting. Sessions were based on themes to evoke reminiscing between couples and the group. Visual cue cards, and specific songs relating to those themes, were prepared for each session. The music therapist had extensive experience in group leading in dementia settings such as close units and hospitals. Those techniques and skills were used in the sessions to shape the conversations and music to match the needs of the participants during each session. Music technology (such as Spotify and amplification) was used when appropriate. Clinical notes revealed that group dynamics changed over time, showing an increased participant ownership of the group and increased support between couples. Pre and post questionnaires in this project aimed to measure the relationship needs of the carer over time, and a final evaluation form provided insight into what the participants valued from these sessions. Previous international research suggested that music therapy could provide many benefits for the emotional needs of both the person living with dementia and those supporting them. As dementia needs are transferable, regardless of country or culture, we expected a similar outcome. This is the first music therapy focused project in New Zealand which looked to extend our understanding of the needs of both the person living with dementia and the person supporting them. Qualitatively, this project provided rich stories of relationship support; but, quantitatively, it was limited by the small scale and the ability to adjust for a predetermined declining scale.

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