Reclaiming What’s Been Lost: Reaching Seniors With Dementia

Paddy is tapping her feet. She giggles a little and says, “That was good.”

Through the years The Benny Goodman Orchestra, Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams have had no shortage of praise for their music, but this moment has a bit of a miracle in it.   

Paddy, at 97 years old, enjoys watching tv and attending social hours with live music at The Waterford, a Bria seniors’ community in Tsawwassen, BC. Over the years she’s become mostly non-verbal. But when Brenda sits beside her, gently places the headphones over her ears, presses play on her personalized playlist, and begins to softly rub lotion into her hands, Paddy opens up.

Lucy sits in her wheelchair, eyes closed, fists clenched, with a blanket covering her for extra warmth. Her cozy suite is full of photos from her younger years including her days singing with the Toronto chapter of The Sweet Adelines, an international four-part harmony group.

“Music was a constant in our house,” recalls Lucy’s daughter. “I can remember coming home from school to find the music cranked and Mom happily doing her thing around the house.”

Brenda selects Lucy’s personalized playlist, finds Herb Alpert, and presses play. Lucy doesn’t speak or make eye contact anymore, but as the music plays, she immediately begins to respond — opening her eyes, moving, even singing a bit — she still has a deep love of music.

Brenda Hodson, Recreation Manager for The Waterford loves the opportunity to coax residents like Lucy and Paddy, back to themselves. The iPad Music Program at the Waterford is one of her passions.

“Spending one-on-one time with residents who are mostly non-verbal and watching their reaction as their favourite music is played, brings us both joy,” says Brenda.

“My goal is to reach those residents that seem to be unreachable. Music has a way of bringing out the best in people and helps them remember happier times in their lives.”

The benefits of music for seniors are well documented, but the program at The Waterford is about much more than music. To unlock the hearts and minds of her residents in the midst of their dementia cycle, Brenda and her staff engage three essential elements:

Physical Touch Brenda and the Care Centre staff use a gentle touch, rubbing lotion on to hands for the purpose of establishing a human connection. “This isn’t massage therapy,” she states, “this is connection.”

A Caring Community Giving seniors a place where they are cared for, known, encouraged, and engaged is essential to keeping isolation at bay. Brenda and the Care Centre team care for the social and emotional needs of their residents, as well as the physical.

Personal Connection Discovering individual preferences is how Brenda maximizes the moment with each resident. Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams were specifically chosen for Paddy by her two daughters. Fellow resident, Lucy listens to Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. Jean listens to musicals like My Fair Lady as well as Perry Como.  A quick email to families, requesting input on their parent’s favourite music, elicits enthusiastic responses.

While Paddy and Lucy’s world has been shrunken by the impact of dementia, they are not out of reach. The key to unlocking their world lies in the caring hearts and hands of those around them.