British Columbia

The power of music provides comfort to those with dementia

People living with dementia often suffer from isolation. But a nursing professor from the University of Victoria has been working to change that.

'It taps into a part of your brain that's often not touched as much by dementia,' says researcher

Mary Peters (left) and Rita Goodman sing in the Voices in Motion choir. They also participate in the study led by UVic researchers like Dr. Debra Sheets. (Suzanne Ahearne/UVic)

People living with dementia often suffer from isolation. But a nursing professor from the University of Victoria has been working to change that.

Dr. Debra Sheets is the lead researcher for a Victoria choir that began in January called Voices in Motion. It is for people with dementia and their family caregivers.

High school students from St. Andrew's Regional High School and Pacific Christian School in Victoria also participate. 

Sheets found that choir participants with dementia — as well as their caregivers — showed some improvement in their ability to recall words from a list.

"The neat thing about music is it taps into a part of your brain that's often not touched as much by dementia," Sheets told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay.

Sheets' study is part of a two-year research project.

"There's a [lack] of research on the importance of the arts when you have dementia," she said.

For the study, both caregivers and participants with dementia agree to monthly tests administered by the researchers. These tests aim to detect changes in mood, mental functioning and psychological measures such as grip strength and respiratory strength.

"When you have dementia, it becomes even more important to have an activity in which you participate. You become part of a community. It's not about therapy, it's about maintaining an identity and a sense of who you are. Where you're not treated as someone who's got dementia."

Preliminary results of the study will be released in a month, said Sheets

Debra Sheets (centre) is the lead researcher of the Voices in Motion choir and study. Fellow University of Victoria professor, sociologist Andre Smith (left), is also part of the team. (Suzanne Ahearne/UVic)

The study is funded by the Alzheimer's Society Research Society and the Pacific Alzheimer's Research Foundation. Sheets works with a team that includes a colleague from UVic departments of psychology, sociology and the school of music.

One of the participants with dementia was able to joke more about her condition, reported a physician involved with the study. Her mood improved because she started seeing herself as a singer, rather than someone with dementia, said Sheets. 

Organizers are planning to expand the study, starting choirs in Quebec and Ontario, said Sheets. Two choirs will be launched in Victoria in the fall. 

Preliminary results of the study will be released in a month, said Sheets.

Listen to the full interview:

With files from North by Northwest

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