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Singing for body and soul in later life

Thea Jacob is a community musician and a member of Sinai Synagogue in Leeds

Many know about the positive effects of singing and music for people living with numerous conditions however what can we, as a Jewish community, do to give access to some of the most evocative, uplifting music of their earlier days, the music of their Jewish community, the voices of their shul?

Through my experiences of sharing sociable singing with older people I have seen what a profound relief it can bring to many debilitating conditions. I commonly hear anecdotally that “singing makes you feel better”. We now have rigorous scientific studies to investigate and confirm the mechanisms of the benefits singing can offer; for people living with COPD, Aphasia, Dementias, Parkinsons, chronic pain, and the isolation and loss of identity, confidence and self esteem that these conditions can bring. I have worked with people with all these conditions and seen first hand what a valuable, adaptable tool shared, informal singing can be.

A large part of my work is with people living with advancing stages of dementia, some living independently in the community, some in general residential care and some in advanced dementia units. In caring for people with advancing dementias informal sharing of tunes and songs can greatly assist; in day to day tasks, in relieving worry loops, reducing anxiety, enabling uplifting sociable interaction and self expression, accessing authentic memories and emotions. Here are three examples.

A young care worker, who I’d given some training to, reported “It used to be really difficult to move a particular resident around the unit, to go for meals, take her to the toilet, or to bed. Changing location was really distressing for her. But then I discovered that if we sing “All we hear is radio goo-goo radio gaa-gaa” she relaxes and is perfectly happy to get up and stroll along wherever we need to go”.

On visiting a dementia setting where I didn’t know the residents, most of the people in the room joined in with increasing confidence and pleasure. One lady fell asleep after a while and missed most of the session. An OT assured me that was a particularly positive outcome. That lady suffers so much with restless anxiety she is never still, struggles to sleep at night and is generally exhausted. For her, to be soothed into a peaceful sleep by the sounds of soft, cheerful voices singing and chatting together was a blessing.

Visiting a secure dementia unit, I was briefed by staff to keep my distance from a particular, non-verbal lady in a wheelchair as she was inclined to scratch and bite. Over the weeks I felt she was wanting to engage with me, catching the fabric of my party dress and enjoying its texture and colours. I cautiously offered her my hands while singing an uptempo dance song. She took my hands firmly as I gently invited her to sway to the beat with me. This connection developed, with no scratching or biting, becoming more and more expressive and animated. Now she was directing me, with vigorous movements sending me off to spin and twirl to the right, returning to her outstretched hands on the beat ready to be twirled off to the left, jiving and swirling to a satisfying finale.

When she drew my hand to her lips I was ready to pull away, but she was offering a heartfelt thankyou. With time she began speaking a little to me, coherently. She had been a keen dancer, with all the associations that carries. Her life now, static, confined to a wheelchair, restricted to two communal rooms and her bed, with advancing dementia, was beyond enduring, until she found somebody through whom she could be herself and dance. It was the song, with its associations, its melody and rhythm, that lit the spark of understanding between us.

Why are these observations particularly relevant to a Jewish community? 

Challenges to physical and emotional wellbeing with advancing age can and do affect our families, our friends and members of our communities. The more knowledge, skills and empathy we can acquire the better we can help to alleviate distress, and restore joy of life to those we love and care for.

Even more significantly, last summer NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) published a guidance document QS 184, for Dementia care. Under Quality Statement 5 “Activities to promote wellbeing” they set out that “The activities offered should be based on an understanding of that individual’s unique set of life experiences, circumstances, preferences, strengths and needs.”

The insights I have outlined can be of benefit to anyone, from any background, in any context. I have tried to emphasise the importance of finding the songs and associations that are meaningful and valuable to each individual. As a challenging health condition emerges, and progresses, how can we ensure that that person’s “musical first aid kit” travels with them, remaining available to them and to any care givers they may increasingly rely on?

When I glance at the communal CD stack in care settings I see Bing Crosby, Elvis, Country music, Abba etc. The common ground, the standard fare, but where is the music that was part of a Jewish life? Equally, people who become housebound may lose access to some of the most evocative, uplifting music of their earlier days, the music of their Jewish community, the voices of their schule.

This is where we and our Jewish communities have a unique role. If a Jewish friend or relation, or any member of our community, can no longer access or engage with their schule, how can we ensure that they keep those songs, those voices, with them? Who knows that person well enough? Who remembers with them? Who can go to the Rabbi, the Cantor, the choir, the simcha band, and record the soundscape of that individual’s Jewish life, the acoustic and voices of their schule, the festive tunes of their family home? We can, only we, who know that person well.

How can we do this?

  • Raise awareness, amongst older and younger members.
  • Identify when members, or someone in their family, may be finding it harder to access their Jewish community directly, or may be becoming more dependent on care givers.
  • Have the conversation. What challenges are they facing, what issues are making life harder for them? What kinds of musical resources would be accessible and beneficial to them?
  • Identify what musical material is precious and evocative to them, most particularly any that is not readily available online and especially music related to their Jewish life both recent and distant.
  • Set about recording this music, as best you can. Smart phones are good enough if that’s all you have access to.
  • Arrange a song sharing session, for a particular recipient, or it could be a communal event where you capture “the old tunes” to hold as a general resource. Invite the Rabbi, Cantor, choir, older members, anyone who might remember tunes from earlier minchagim. Include songs for simchas, for home festivals, from youth movements, any that are familiar and evocative to the recipient. If the recipient grew up speaking other languages try to include appropriate songs in these too.
  • Gather this musical archive into an accessible format appropriate to the recipient’s circumstances, with backup copies.
  • Do what you can to ensure that the recipient can use this resource now and as their circumstances change. Stay connected. Encourage your outreach teams to use the resource. Encourage caregivers to use it too.

There are excellent charities already established who support this approach; www.playlistforlife.org.uk have a growing digital resource, including TV theme tunes, advertising jingles, and recorded music from across the decades. They can help build an individual “playlist”, including the uniquely Jewish recordings you have made, and put it onto a suitable device for you.

www.musicmirrors.co.uk has a good website that helps guide through the process of creating a very practical, personal, memory resource to support people with dementias, their loved ones and caregivers.

Through this process we may come to know and appreciate members of our community more fully, and enable them to retain their identity, individuality and joy of life throughout their later years.

Hashkiveinu Adonai eloheinu l’shalom, v’ha’amideinu malkeinu l’chayyim.

“Source of our life and our Sovereign, cause us to lie down in peace, and rise again to enjoy life.”

 

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