OAPs with dementia in hospitals and care homes across Glasgow are putting on headphones and finding that hits from their youth are sparking memories and bringing them ‘back to normality’ – if only briefly.
Silent disco organiser Gillian Machaffie, 52, was inspired to take music into care homes after watching the effect it had on her own mother-in-law, Reta, 87, who has the illness.
Gillian was stunned to see her mother-in-law start dancing and singing, and says science backs up the anecdotal evidence she has seen on her visits.
Around 20 songs are played over a 90-minute session, and Gillian says The Beatles and Elvis often spark recognition – as well as Scottish folk music.
Gillian said: ‘People come back to life – conversation becomes more fluid.
‘I started doing trial ones, going round some of the care homes.
‘We noticed when we held a silent disco at my mother-in-law’s care home she got up to dance and sing and it was a distraction from her anxious thoughts and confusion.
‘She becomes more relaxed and gets swept up in the experience.
‘Music switches on the pathways in the brain that aren’t otherwise accessible.
‘For a person with dementia who is confused and anxious studies show that music will bring them back to a place of normality.’
The mum-of-one gave up a career running children’s nurseries to spend more time in Australia, where her daughter lives, which is where she came across silent discos and read research linking music with alleviating dementia.
And she set up her silent disco company, Ya Dancer, in 2017 after organising one for her own 50th birthday.
But she quickly realised that as well as putting on events for parties, the silent discos could help people in other ways.
The idea has proved so successful that she has visited hospitals including the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, Dykebar Hospital in Paisley, Renfrewshire, and the dementia cafe at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
On one occasion, the daughter of a dementia patient was so moved by the effect the silent disco had on her dad that she invited Gillian back to the hospital to organise another one, for his 80th birthday.
So far, The Beatles’ Hey Jude is very popular with the residents, and Scottish singer Andy Stewart is another favourite.
Gillian says that sometimes, watching the effect the music has on the residents can bring her to tears.
Gillian, from East Dunbartonshire, said: ‘People put the music on and their faces light up, they’re clapping their hands and singing.
‘So for me watching it, it’s really enjoyable.
‘What gets me the most is watching families cry as they watch their lost loved ones return to their former selves through dancing, singing and feeling really happy.
‘One couple that were both in the home were singing to each other for an hour and a half.
‘It was very heartwarming.
‘They’re waving their hands and singing and you can see their eyes twinkling again.
‘It might be one of the only times they have strong memories come through.
‘With the headphones on they’re immersed in the music and there’s no distractions.
‘The music taps into a different part of their brains and the feel good factor is really high.’
Rosemary Walker, who runs David Cargill House where Gillian holds discos, said: ‘We noticed that people who don’t normally get involved participate because it’s so fun.
‘Residents have their own playlists and this brings lots of evocative memories and they feel special.
‘Staff love it too.’