Music Engagement Research

HammondCare’s Music Engagement Project aims to empower residents living with dementia through the experience of music

Unlocking the power of music

In the last year, more than 750 residents throughout NSW have been given iPods with personalised playlists in order to give them the opportunity to listen to the songs they love. It’s part of an ongoing project using music to improve the quality of life of people living with dementia.

The program is being led by HammondCare’s Director of Music Engagement, Dr Kirsty Beilharz, a former Professor of Music, Sonification and Interaction Design at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“There has been strong evidence for some time about the potential of music to transform and improve quality of life,” said Dr Beilharz.

“[Since introducing the program] we have witnessed great examples of residents enjoying and being enlivened by personalised music."

"Music brings a river of joy": Terry's story

We first met Terry after a call from the local hospital.

Terry had an accident on a local railway station, and had been admitted for care. He was on the mend, but Terry was confused and seemed completely alone. Amazingly, there was no detailed background information available. It seemed he was a man with no family, no past, and no identity. And Terry was living with dementia.

When the new HammondCare Music Engagement program arrived at Erina, a few months ago, our goal was to enable choice and connections for residents, and to empower care staff to connect with residents, and grow their relationships.

For Terry, so often seemingly disengaged and alone, the program has been a revelation. The first time Terry had his specially prepared iPod on, and the headphones in place, he was transformed. He hopped to his feet and a beaming, rascally smile was splitting his face.

The gift of music has brought a flood of joy to Terry and everyone fortunate enough to be in his dancing, hugging, cheeky path. For a solitary man, with no family or friends, and whose past is still very much a mystery, the Music Engagement Program has been a wonderful gift that lights up all our lives.

Terry and a fellow HammondCare resident listen to music together with big smiles

>Where words fail: the Music Engagement Project explained

When language cognition and verbal communication decline, people who no longer speak or comprehend conversation can often still sing and even recall lyrics. Interestingly, music appreciation seems to outlast deterioration of any specific region of the brain. 

Music also operates on many levels, such that emotional connection endures even if reminiscence and memory fade. Listening to music facilitates shared experiences, not contingent on memory or speech, so that grandchildren, community visitors, and volunteers can listen to music and sit with an older person without being intimidated or wondering how to relate.

Amazing benefits of music

Music is also key to some surprising and fantastic synergies, including reduction in pain perception, potential reduction in anti-psychotic and anti-depressant pharmacological interventions, increased mobility and balance, reduction in agitation during grooming and bathing, appetite stimulation, improved taste and enhanced food appreciation.

Music can elicit attentiveness, reminiscence and volubility. Music edifies personal identity, individuality and community belonging. Soothing music can reduce anxiety.

Above all, music can connect and reach people emotionally, even when procedural and semantic memory ebbs, and for family, friends and carers, it provides a way to connect and relate when speech fails.

Changing the culture of care

With the Music Engagement Project, we’re aiming to bring about a paradigm shift that repositions music from an ‘every now and then’ or weekly intervention provided by a visiting expert, to an everyday experience embedded in the culture of daily care.

We want to emphasise personhood and meaningful experience in-the-moment, rather than seeing this as a form of ‘therapy’.

A variety of modes for music engagement

To enable tailored, individualised music, we've spent countless hours in consultation with families and carers to design specific playlists for residents, so that when the headphones are put on and the iPod shuffle turned on, they hear something familiar and individually relevant. In this way, the technology becomes a tool facilitating engagement and building relationships.

In the last year, HammondCare has distributed 750 iPod shuffles in all of our Sydney and Central Coast residential care homes, with half of the residents in those homes receiving iPods and an individualised playlist. The feedback has been incredibly positive and the proof has been in the smiles on the faces of the residents.

But it's not just the iPods, we also make sure there are opportunities for residents to make their own music through participating in music and singing groups, singing in chapel and at festive events, or when musicians come and visit. These things actively involve residents and support a sense of contribution and belonging.

In an exciting new venture, we've recently collaborated with design students from the University of New South Wales Art and Design Master's Degree to develop some age appropriate musical instruments. These are designed to enable older people without any musical experience to express themselves easily and create beautiful sounds through simple movements. This gives people an outlet for expression and curiosity through playful, enjoyable engagement.

This, along with the music participation groups and individual iPods, is part of HammondCare's multifaceted approach to music engagement. It's designed to be flexible and tailored to each individual's needs, offering active and social methods of music engagement where appropriate.

At HammondCare, music is all about building relationships, engaging people and seeing them engage with others.