Finding Meaning Through Music Therapy
Music Therapy is a psychological therapy which works to develop a therapeutic relationship through live musical interaction. Using music in this way enables people to create their own unique musical language in which to explore and connect with the world and to express themselves. Earlier this year, the Scottish music therapists and the British Association for Music Therapy (www.bamt.org) held a parliamentary round-table at the Scottish Parliament, hosted by Tavish Scott, MSP for the Shetland Isles. An important part of the debate was listening to the personal experience of Mr and Mrs Bissett.
Jim Bissett, was a building control inspector in Edinburgh. Now 65, he was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s seven years ago. Jim’s wife, Anne, told the moving story of how Alzheimer’s gradually eroded Jim’s abilities and his enjoyment of life; and how music therapy helped them to find pleasure and meaning together again. Anne has kindly agreed to share her story with you all in the hope that music therapy might help other families find joy again in their lives.
“Climbing in Glencoe, swimming in the sea in Majorca, discovering mountain biking at the age of 50, playing chasey in the back garden with the children, a pint in the pub with friends, enjoying meals with the family…
My husband, Jim Bisset, enjoyed his leisure time enormously. These activities were a normal part of his life. He was a happy man. He enjoyed life.
Seven years ago, Jim was diagnosed with a relatively rare type of Alzheimers known as PCA …….Posterior Cortical Atrophy. PCA affects your spatial awareness and your sight and initially this made day to day living very hard. I continued to work but eventually he could not be left alone so I too retired early to care for him.
Until recently, Jim was fully aware of the many things he could not do. He never complained but, as his condition worsened and he could do less and less for himself, he became angry, frustrated, depressed, uncooperative and, at times, frightened.
Simple things became hugely difficult; finding a door handle, working out how to sit down, eating with a knife and fork, putting on a T shirt. Apart from ice cream and chocolate, there was no pleasure in his life. He needed help with all aspects of daily living. Our world became smaller and smaller until Jim was mostly confined to the house.
I must have asked at least fifteen professionals for ideas for something Jim could participate in or get some enjoyment from but nothing was suitable. Then Ruth McCabe, from Alzheimer Scotland, suggested music therapy. I contacted the British Association for Music Therapy and through them we found our wonderful music therapist, Nicky Haire.
We met and I told her a bit about Jim and the music he enjoyed; from Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, to Jimmy Shand and Aly Bain. She was an excellent listener.
We arranged our first music therapy session at home but Jim had suddenly become very ill two days before. He was distressed, slightly delirious and could not physically get out of his bed. However, with the aid of a wheeled chair, I managed to get Jim onto the sofa and we went ahead with the session. I decided not to sit in with Jim, but in our small house I could hear the music and our music therapist singing gently to him from time to time.
I joined them towards the end of the session and could immediately see a positive difference in Jim. He was relaxed, sitting back on the sofa and for the first time in months he looked happy. He had been tapping his feet in time to the music which seems such a small thing, but for me it was a sign that he’ d responded positively to the music therapy; something he no longer did with CDs or any of the 4,200 tunes on his IPod.
Knowing Jim was safe on the sofa, I helped our therapist take her instruments to the car. When I turned round I was absolutely shocked to find Jim standing happily at the front door. For three days previously he’d hardly moved and to realise he’d walked unaided to the door was wonderful.
For the first time in months, Jim spoke a few sentences unprompted. I remember him saying, “She was really good”. He made it clear he wanted her to visit again.
One day before his music therapy, Jim was very distressed. He constantly moved around, repeating “What’s happening?” and constantly calling my name. Nothing I said or did made any difference. The calming music on CD which previously helped, now, like so many other things, was no longer helpful. To alleviate his distress, I thought I would have to try to get him to take the medication we had for times when he was like that.
I stayed with him as his music therapy began, and to my amazement, after a few minutes, Jim had calmed down and was sitting quite relaxed on the sofa listening to some fiddle music.
I didn’t use the medication.
In spite of my best efforts, my husband’s days had become bleak and unrewarding, but here was something that brought some joy back into his life; and not only that, it had a therapeutic effect.
Jim is now very ill and has just been admitted to a psychiatric ward in a community hospital. However, I have arranged for our therapist to continue the sessions in his room because I believe it is so important … And she begins again tomorrow.
Jim used to run and swim and cycle; now he needs two people to help him shuffle along a flat surface. Jim was a foodie, but now he has a pureed diet and gets no enjoyment from food. He laughed and danced and, only when tipsy mind, he would sing. He enjoyed social occasions; now he often doesn’t know his friends and family and can’t follow a conversation.
All those activities I described at the start of our story have long since disappeared from his life. So what has he left?
He has Music, in the form of music therapy. It is the only thing which he gets any pleasure from.
It concerns me greatly that many people like Jim, do not have access to this therapy. We can afford it but lots of people can’t.
“Music therapy has truly made a difference in my husband’s life. And I hope that the same opportunity could be made available to many more people with dementia, so that they too could have some joy in their lives.”
Thank you Anne for sharing your story and thank you to all our blog readers for your continued support to keep talking about dementia
Further information of the arts therapies can be found here
Arts Therapies, including Music Therapy, are psychological therapies which work to develop a therapeutic relationship through non-verbal, creative means such as music, art, drama or dance/movement. Using art forms in this way enables clients to create their own unique creative, non-verbal language in which to explore and connect with the world and to express themselves. For further information on music therapy, art therapy, dramatherapy or dance movement therapy; or to find an arts therapist in your area, please contact the following organisations:
British Association for Music Therapy
2nd Floor, Claremont Building 24 – 27 White Lion Street London, N1 9PD
T: 020 7837 6100
British Association of Art Therapists
T: 020 7686 4216
British Association of Dramatherapists
Waverley, Battledown Approach Cheltenham
Gloucestershire GL52 6RE
T: 020 7837 6100
Association for Dance Movement Psychotherapy
32 Meadfoot Lane
Torquay TQ1 2BW
T: 01803 402142
Aisling Vorster – Music Therapist
Aisling Vorster is a music therapist with NHS Lothian and also works on a freelance basis providing music therapy for individuals, groups and families and carers. She plays the Scottish harp or ‘clarsach’ and also runs music workshops for people with dementia and their carers. Until recently she was chair of the Scottish Music Therapy & Dementia Network and a member of the National Working Group for music therapy and dementia run by the British Association for Music Therapy.