Mental health and wellbeing column: cultivating a musical community in care homes

Gary Ansdell
Saturday, June 1, 2024

Dr Gary Ansdell, author and associate of music therapy charity Nordoff and Robbins, shares his experience of music-making in a care home, and the benefits for staff as well as residents

Belong Care Home, Manchester
Belong Care Home, Manchester

Ed Hill

Like most musicians, the first Covid lockdown (March 2020) was a shock for me. I was working as a music therapist in a care home and doing a research project called Care for Music. Suddenly, the home shut to all visitors, with just the core staff left to cope. Within a few weeks, the manager asked me if I could do online sessions. I thought she was crazy! How could online music reach people in a care home lounge – many of whom had dementia, or problems with hearing? Wouldn't the sound latency make it impossible to make music?

But I said I'd try, and the first session was messy, as predicted. I was playing and singing into a laptop at home, and the residents and carers were looking at me on a large TV on the wall in their lounge. The internet signal kept breaking. I could only see half of the room, and the sound was delayed. Surely this would never work? Then, halfway through this first session, I noticed something that changed my mind:

I see Saul sitting in a wheelchair wearing a slightly battered straw hat. He's looking up attentively at the TV screen (at me!), and, after a minute of Loch Lomond, I sing ‘the moon coming up’. As the melody peaks on ‘up’, Saul raises his hand to conduct me. Then, as the melody declines, he lowers his hand I remember that Saul always used to do this when I was there in person. Here, he is doing the same thing in this strange new world of online music.

In this moment, however chaotic it felt, I knew that music could help in the way it usually did: making contact, and allowing relationship and community to develop. I went on to do 60 of these online session during 2020–21. Gradually the sessions became easier, carers began helping, and many moving moments emerged. Another resident liked Bach, and, as I played Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, she played a kind of air-piano, stepping up to the TV screen where I appeared. When I asked her whether she'd played this piece in the past, she said she'd forgotten – but clearly her fingers had not! Then, the care staff themselves began to conduct the residents, mediating the music I was making at distance into the care home sitting-room, adding pantomime-style gestures to characterise the songs and helping the residents to make their own musical entertainment. The sessions became fun, surprising, poignant, but also taught us researchers some crucial lessons on how music and care mirror and enhance each other.

Musical care and wellbeing

Our research team called these online sessions an ‘accidental experiment’. They allowed us to study the videos in detail to see how people responded to the music, initiated things, and helped each other to make music. In short, we discovered how much people cared for music together during these difficult times, and how it improved wellbeing not just for the residents but for the staff too. The manager of the care home said: ‘Staff are so stressed – the pressure's physical but also emotional. These minutes of dancing and singing when the music's happening help them relax, help them rebalance.’

The sessions during the pandemic showed how music can ‘reach through’ physical and relational barriers, even in quite extreme situations. They showed how much most people care for music and benefit from it individually and socially. These sessions reinforced what we knew already from the pre-Covid in-person sessions. But the more extreme situation also showed us something very important: that although my professional skills as a music therapist were certainly necessary, the online sessions also relied on the care for music, skills and shared energy of everyone there.

We've begun to talk about ‘distributed care for music’ and the simple conclusion that it takes a community to make good music. Any musical community needs to be cultivated and nurtured over time. A music therapist does just this. I was a member of this community for three years before Covid, and I got to know the residents, families and staff, and how they cared for music. When Covid struck, it was my ongoing musical relationship with the people and the place that helped us through – and helped music to still help.