The power of music

Sunsets lost their beauty for David Ross-Smith when they were replaced by sundowners.

Sundowning is the term used to describe agitation and distress experienced in the early evening by those living with dementia. And as Ross-Smith watched his partner, David, call out in confusion, he decided to put on a CD of classical music to lighten the mood.

Ross-Smith was unprepared for what happened next. The muscles in his partner’s jaw relaxed and his features were transformed by joy as he was soothed by the beauty of his favourite composers.

And this experience has evolved into one of the many programs Uniting AgeWell has in place to enable those living with dementia lead as joyful, purposeful and stress-free lives as possible, as well as supporting their carers.

A growing challenge

Dementia is proving one of the biggest challenges facing the aged care sector. The bad news is that it’s incurable and cases are skyrocketing with about half of those entering aged care now diagnosed with the disease. Most people with dementia still live at home, so by the time they move into residential aged care the disease is advanced and their needs are specialised.

The good news is a lot of research is being done into Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – illnesses of the brain that affect memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to perform everyday activities. And Uniting AgeWell, is pulling out all the stops to make life for those living with dementia as good as it can be. And also trying to improve the life of their family carers who often experience exhaustion and heartbreak too.

There are a number of ways to help people re-engage long-term memory and to live as well as they possibly can; one of them is through music.

Hearing is one of the last senses to be compromised by dementia. And long after speech – both understanding and speaking – has become a distorted jumble of words, music still makes sense.

“Music reaches out to people in the way that words can’t. And the soothing and restorative power of music cannot be over emphasised,” says Uniting AgeWell Director of AgeWell Centres Paul Warwick.

“Music brings joy and invokes memories.”

It’s one of the reasons Uniting AgeWell established a long-standing partnership with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, which recently played a live concert at Uniting AgeWell’s Latrobe Community Strathdevon. This partnership has also enabled streaming on demand of their concerts to all Uniting AgeWell residential care communities.

The growing number of residents and clients from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities presents a challenge in that many older people with dementia revert to their mother tongue. Music transcends all languages.

Music For David

Music For David is Uniting AgeWell’s music therapy program which aims to provide short-term relief through music for people living with dementia and their carers.

Participants are provided with individually curated playlists that may help ease symptoms of dementia, including restlessness and agitation. The participants and their families work with specialised staff to design a digital playlist of songs, based on their individual taste and the era of music most familiar to them. They are also provided with an MP3 device and headset.

And findings are that people respond best to music they would have heard in their 20s and 30s. So yes, in decades to come, there’ll be older people living with dementia busting out the air guitar to Midnight Oil, or doing the Locomotion with Kylie Minogue.

The program was established and named in memory of Reverend David Hodges AM, a founding member of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977 and a minister at Toorak Uniting Church until his retirement in 1983. David had dementia for the last six years of his life until his death in 2012 at the age of 88.

He was supported by his partner of over 30 years, musician David Ross-Smith who became his full time carer. And towards the end, Ross-Smith called in Uniting AgeWell’s home care team to help.

Watching music do its magic

Ross-Smith stumbled on the soothing power of music quite by chance as he watched David grow distressed during his daily sundowning episodes.

“It was heart-breaking to watch, and I was utterly exhausted caring for David round the clock. I just wanted to go for a walk in the evening for a bit of a break, but every time I left the room he would fret,” Ross-Smith explains.

Ross-Smith put on classical music and was astounded at how quickly it soothed David. And it allowed him time to take a break. “I always knew the power that music could evoke. But to see it in action was quite magical,” he explains.

Ross-Smith published David’s scholarly works on Christianity and the Church in 2010 in a book entitled Making Love Real. The proceeds were given to Uniting AgeWell to help those living with dementia gain joy through music. And, Ross-Smith, working with Uniting AgeWell, established the Music For David program.

Then in what he describes as a “labour of love”, Ross-Smith used the time during lockdown to pour through David’s as yet unpublished scholarly works, and he stumbled on a number of poignant and insightful writings.

As a result, a second edition of David’s book with newly published material and the subtitle The Church and My Journey of Mind and Spirit was released in November 2021, with proceeds once again going to the program.

Making love absolutely real

“Ours was a wonderful love story Ross-Smith says simply. “In those earlier days, being gay wasn’t as accepted as it is today. David was a high profile clergyman and he had a family. But we loved each other deeply and it was a privilege and a joy to share my life with him.”

Ross-Smith says the title of the book reflects David’s passionate beliefs about the need for churches to reform for a new era. And how each of us can find fulfilment and happiness by making love real in our world.

“David’s journey – and mine – are intertwined in a celebration of our love,” Ross-Smith explains. “There were many hurdles in the way of our ‘coming out’ as gay. Yet David steadfastly did what he believed was right, and had the courage to make our love real in every sense of the word.

“And in turn, when I nursed David during the last years of his life, I was doing exactly the same. It was the reality of love and devotion in action.”

Ross-Smith is delighted the program is helping so many with dementia. “Using the proceeds of the book to go towards the program, is what David would have wanted,” Ross-Smith says. “He was a very giving person, and he would be delighted that his works will contribute to helping others. It’s making the love we feel for our fellow human beings real …”

The pianist, music teacher and singer also says both the program and the books enable David’s legacy to live on. “It’s a privilege for me to honour both his memory and our love.”

Ross-Smith believes the title of the program, “Music For David” applies to both those living with dementia and their carers.

“We’re both named David – it’s a touching tribute to the wellbeing of both,” he says.

Available in print from The Book Depository, Amazon or Booktopia, ISBN 978-0-6489508-0-6

Or as an ebook from Amazon Kindle.

All proceeds from sales go to Uniting AgeWell’s ‘Music For David’ program.

Learn more about Music For David