by Heidi Smith

Since her childhood Heidi Smith has known about the influence music can have on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. And having played organ and piano for church services in congregations and aged-care facilities since she was a teenager, she has seen positive changes in people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Now as a chaplain, she uses music therapy as one avenue to support people living with dementia.

I grew up with music and singing as part of my home life. We had family devotions, singing Christian hymns and songs within that intergenerational setting. My grandparents loved to sit around the piano and sing while I played. My siblings and I used to put on
concerts for elderly ‘shut-in’ people in our lounge room and music was a great connector for community building in that space.

I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t ‘hang out’ with elderly people in care and those living with dementia. My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and lived with us before moving into a nursing home. Our youth group sang carols in the local hospital at Christmas, and the way people diagnosed with dementia responded by clapping, smiling and singing encouraged me to focus on the power of music to help connect people to their memories.

Additional research in music therapy theories supported my earlier observations.

I have worked professionally for six years with more than 40 residents living with dementia since becoming a full-time Lutheran Community Care (LCC) chaplain at Immanuel Gardens Retirement Village, Buderim Queensland, and now at Zion Lutheran Home, Nundah Queensland.

While at Immanuel Gardens, I led story and song sessions. The village had ‘old-time’ large print songbooks and residents would choose songs, calling out the numbers they wanted. Many residents living with dementia love hunting for numbers, since numbers are often the last written texts people remember.

I would play the piano and sing the chosen song with everyone joining in. Residents living with dementia loved to tap and clap along to the music.

As a chaplain at Immanuel Gardens, I also led church services for people who at that time lived in
a ‘secure wing’ due to their diagnoses of various forms of dementia. During those worship times, I noticed amazing behavioural changes which occupational therapy students doing research also noted: some residents moved from random roaming, looking off in the distance and/or aggressive behaviours, to walking into the room for church and sitting down. At church, they sat together, holding a hymnbook, looking up the numbers of hymns and singing together. Many would model earlier learned ‘church behaviours’, such as sitting quietly and listening to Bible readings and a sermon. They prayed the Lord’s Prayer and confessed the Apostles’ Creed together, while others joined in rituals such as crossing themselves.

One man who hardly ever spoke would sing with gusto for various hymns – I learned he had been an Anglican choir boy. A woman, who needed to be fed by staff since she was unable to remember how to feed herself, ate lunch with her utensils straight after church. And a resident who ordinarily isolated herself, turned and shook her neighbour’s hand during the ‘passing
of the peace’, then remained holding hands until the next song.

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