What is Musical Reminiscence?

Rowena is the first person in the Country to research and develop Musical reminiscence as an active, pleasurable and highly effective therapy for the elderly.   It has evolved out of her love of working with elderly and dementia patients over the last 23 years.   She is currently writing a book about it.

Rowena Wilson
Rowena Wilson delivers Musical Reminiscence – Click for larger image

The power of combining therapeutic methods

Musical Reminiscence is the perfect blending of several highly therapeutic and enjoyable activities for the elderly, with music as the key stimulus.   Adapting to each area the people respond to, the specialist can help revive memories, stimulate participation and interaction with others, taking them through a journey that reflects and also lifts their moods (if, indeed, that is appropriate).   As well as the stimulus of the music and personal interaction and the absorption with the reminiscence, participants can also get health benefits by actually singing and moving with instruments and actions.  It’s good for the lungs, good for the brain and good for the soul.  Socially, there’s nothing more inclusive for groups of people brought together for the first time at the twilight of their lives.  This can have the added benefit of diffusing any tensions within a group (even if only temporarily) whilst including even the least able to communicate in the most enjoyable manner.

Showing a genuine interest in the elderly person’s wellbeing (rapport and gentle enthusiasm cannot be underestimated) a Musical Reminiscence specialist uses their extensive knowledge of historic social/cultural/local music and, importantly, it’s production, combined with relevant visual stimulus to engage the elderly to participate in a beneficial, enjoyable and meaningful process.  Related reminiscence objects are utilised throughout to further engage interest, memories and conversation.  This also drives the direction of the music employed.

Sight, Touch, Sound

In Musical Reminiscence, three of the senses are engaged:  the sight of the therapist in their vibrant costume and looking at the reminiscence;  the touch of those costume fabrics, the reminiscence objects and instruments and the sound of the different music and their own voices.

Each aspect that is employed can be blended, extended or diminished according to the group, their mood and their needs on the day.  This is a flexible experience and is person centred.

Elsie Whitley

Recreating the sense of occasion with positive stimulus

Recreating the stimulus of situations of enjoyment from the past (i.e. from dances, theatre, weddings, family occasions etc.) by bringing in lavish colour and a sense of occasion, marks the time out as special from the outset – the noise is not just the TV this time so the surprise is taken notice of.   The look and touch of a vivid costume close up, can stimulate even the most unreceptive dementia patients to take note of what is going on in front of them.   It will remind them of positive, pleasurable times gone by and encourage them to watch and continue to participate in what happens next.

Reminiscence materials are used to start discussions and help participants recall what music they would prefer to hear and what they associate with a particular song.  These can be historic items to pass round or photographs and pictures mounted in a relevant order.   A signed photo of a Music Hall star for example, can stimulate personal memories relating to them, or an occasion when their music was played in their lives.  Record sleeves of a favourite singer can remind someone of a moment or many pleasurable times in their lives.  The wider the variety of visual reminiscence shown can elicit a response from more people – sometimes the Sunday school has the strongest pull so religious music can then be employed, sometimes  it becomes clear that War songs should be avoided etc.

Once interaction with the costume or other reminiscence artefacts is established and (potentially) conversation is triggered with other participants and the Musical Reminiscence specialist themselves, attention is then carried with the music itself.

Live music, live memories

The use of live instruments is extremely valuable as these also very much part of the history of elderly people:  Music was always LIVE.   Everyone played and joined in live music from childhood. Many people played, many will have family members playing these instruments.   In previous decades, dances attended – even in rural village halls – always had a live band.  Having music played live is much more real and memory stimulating than watching a singer to a backing track.  Dances and cinema were the big occasion of the week, everyone attended even if they didn’t dance.   In Rural areas it was only dances.  Many people met their life partners at these events. 

People who did not attend dances will still have attended church, where there was live music.  Live music is much appreciated by the elderly.  Watching people play and create the music as they go along is part of the attraction of the event.   It revisits how music WAS for them and makes the recreation of it more valid and authentic.  It brings the specialness back and away from the TV and artificial sounds of today’s world.   If the Musical Reminiscence specialist plays live it also means that it can be a flexible therapy rather than performing AT an audience.  For example; being able to change repertoire and speed instantly (even within a piece) to suit the participants joining in etc.  Those who use backing tracks cannot respond to their unique audiences with the same effect.   This is a fundamental difference to performers who entertain ‘to’ an audience by use of singing to recorded accompaniment.

The benefits of self expression within musical performance are well documented (see Music Therapy in Dementia Care Edited by David Aldridge).  By actually joining in with proper musical instruments, participants can thoroughly participate and be creative in the moment.  Many people used to play instruments from childhood, so the opportunity to be musical or simply make a sound is another dimension for them to enjoy and benefit from.

Helpful Hats and vivid costume

Elderly people associate a big hat for example, with Weddings, theatre costumes, films and big shows; times when they have enjoyed themselves, when something special and out of the ordinary has happened and it was usually a very positive social event

They probably will not have had the opportunity to wear a big hat for many years (or even go outside and wear an ordinary one) so putting one on and feeling special brings the occasion to them.  The feel of an ornate hat will also be appreciated by people that cannot see well and discussion about the weight and heat of one can trigger conversation with others in the group and their experiences.

The qualities of a specialist

All these varied and enjoyable things go into making a successful musical reminiscence session for everyone, but the most important things are the empathy and wide musical experience of the specialist themselves. Potentially vulnerable people, with a long life of knowledge behind them, can sense when someone cares about them and appreciate a gentle and encouraging intrusion in to what is, after all, their living room.  To love working with the elderly is the single most important criteria. The second, is to smile.