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How Dementia Caregivers Are Combatting Stress and Isolation Through Chorus Groups

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Through music, dementia caregivers find community, comfort and healing

Music can be soothing and comforting in many ways. While music is frequently used to calm dementia patients, now an innovative musical chorus is using it to reduce stress for the caregivers of those with dementia.

Dale Lamb1 is 72 years old and a former professional singer who once sang at Carnegie Hall. He now leads choral groups for dementia caregivers and their loved ones. Together, they sing various genres of music and bond over familiar broadway tunes. The choral groups give the caregivers an opportunity to meet and create long-lasting memories. The choral groups also help lessen caregiver loneliness and stress.

The chorus Dale Lamb leads was started by Mary Mittelman, director of NYU Langone Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias Family Support Program. Mittelman discovered what many have about music and dementia: that it has a calming effect and can reduce anxiety. The difference is that she decided to use music to benefit those who provide care instead of for those who receive it.

Although the challenges of dementia caregiving can vary case by case, the effects the disease has on caregivers are largely similar. We conducted a survey of caregivers to determine the emotional costs of dementia caregiving, and found that those who provide care for loved ones with dementia were seven times more likely to experience physical, emotional and mental exhaustion from caregiving than those who do not care for loved ones with dementia. This shows the significant need for more support and programs specifically designed for those caring for loved ones with dementia.

How music is helping reduce caregiver stress and worry. Art, like music, has the power to stimulate feelings of peace and calm. It can provoke positive memories of childhood and family, providing comfort and positive visual stimulation for caregivers. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is piloting an educational program for people with dementia and their caregivers. The purpose is to “…create positive experiences for all participants and to create space where people with dementia and other forms of memory loss can connect with the Gallery’s collection and with their loved ones.”

The program is called “Just Us at the National Gallery of Art2” and takes the form of a bi-weekly guided tour through the galleries. With the help of an educator, it becomes a meditation on a few select paintings in the gallery. Each session features a theme like water scenes, landscapes, or portraits. Participants are invited to share their ideas on the paintings and make observations about what they see. It brings the caregiver and their loved one together in a common space.

Caregivers need ways to reduce stress

In addition to seeking soothing experiences like listening to music, those who provide care for loved ones can practice other techniques to reduce stress. It is important to do so in order to remain an attentive, compassionate caregiver. When exhaustion sets in, apathy can follow and that can impair important caregiving responsibilities. Here are some techniques that can protect the mental, physical and emotional well-being of caregivers:

  • Accept help. You do not need to shoulder all of the responsibilities of caregiving by yourself. It may seem that way, but there is help available. Friends and family members may be able to go grocery shopping or run errands for you. Hiring a professional in-home caregiver will give you a break while knowing that your loved one is well cared for.
  • Be realistic. Don’t set the bar of expectations so high for yourself that it is unattainable. Some days you may be able to cook three meals and do the laundry. Other days you may be able to make a sandwich and spend time watching TV with your loved one. All of that is okay and accepting that will protect your sense of success as you provide care for the long term.
  • Find other caregivers. No one else can understand what your days are like unless they bear the same responsibilities. Search for support groups in your local community. Talking helps to relieve stress and finding those who understand will give you great support.

Caregivers provide important care to loved ones, but it is just as important that they care for themselves too. Stress reducing activities that involve music and art can help. Being patient with yourself and giving yourself credit for the care you provide will go a long way toward reducing stress as well. For more information on ways music is used in dementia care, check out our recent post here.

Sources:

1: A Former Opera Singer Helps Dementia Patients Find Joy through song
2: Just Us at the National Gallery of Art
Chorus Helps Dementia Patients Caregivers Build Community and Self
Why Music Boosts Brain activity in Dementia Patients

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