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'Willis can not always remember my name but he knows all the words to Frank Sinatra's My Way'

When Coleraine man Willis Hammond (80) moved into a care home following a diagnosis of dementia, he found his health improved through taking part in music therapy. By Judith Cole

Music fan: Willis Hammond
Music fan: Willis Hammond
Willis Hammond with Caitriona Doole, nurse manager at Milesian Manor

Talented artist Willis Hammond spent a busy working life as a painter and decorator, and was happily married for more than 60 years. Sadly, however, his wife passed away just five years ago and following a diagnosis of dementia, Willis moved to a care home.

And while the change in his circumstances could have had a detrimental effect on his health, he has been thriving, thanks in large part to music therapy.

Music therapy is an established psychological clinical intervention, and works to support people of all ages who have psychological, emotional, cognitive, physical, communicative and social needs through suffering illness, injury or disability.

Willis, from Coleraine, moved to Northern Ireland's first lifestyle care home, Milesian Manor in Magherafelt, six months ago, and has shown a marked improvement in his overall health and wellbeing since his arrival. And, as Milesian Manor's specialist mental health nurse and nurse manager Caitriona Doole says, the health professionals, Willis and his family believe this is due to the activities he engages in.

"Willis was always a very busy man in life and that has not changed since he became a resident in Milesian Manor," Caitriona says.

"He is thriving and engaging with most of the activities in our daily activity calendar, but the one that really stands out is the impact music therapy has had on him. We use music therapy on a regular basis as a therapeutic tool to improve the symptoms of dementia and have found that the results have been astounding.

"At times, Willis struggles with expressing himself verbally and this leads to frustration, which impacts upon his emotional wellbeing. Music therapy has been proven to reduce stress, with the steady beat and rhythm of appropriate music lowering the heart rate and this calms and regulates emotions.

"Willis finds this type of intervention in particular helpful as he has all the information in his mind - he simply struggles with verbalising it."

Willis also attends morning sessions at the home on mindful meditation and guided relaxation, which he says "really set me up for the day".

And he especially enjoys the times when the minister whose church he attended visits and leads the residents in hymn singing.

Caitriona adds: "Willis loves the spiritual activities when one of the local ministers attends with his guitar and we all sing hymns. For Willis, this is like a trip down memory lane, as he often sang the same hymns and was a member of one of the churches which the Reverend attends, so they have a good old chat about his home town, Coleraine. This really enables Willis to maintain his self of identity and to reminisce about his life, which he really enjoys.

"Willis loves other social music activities, such as choir rehearsal and Name That Tune - he really enjoys getting the percussion instruments out in the cinema and we have a karaoke session. I have noticed that as a result of this, he has developed improved self-esteem and it enhances his memory (remembering words of songs from his younger years), which is such an achievement for him, when on bad days he struggles with conversation.

"Activities such as choir also bring residents together, so there is a sense of belonging and team building."

Caitriona reveals that Willis is known as 'happy feet' because, when the music starts, his feet start moving in time with the beat.

"Willis was a fantastic dancer and often in the middle of any activity, he will jump from his seat and give us an impromptu dance," she smiles. "This always gets the other residents going and brings the gift of laughter, which lifts the mood of the group and improves the overall mental health and emotional wellbeing of our residents. This also gets the body moving, which improves physical health."

And Caitriona says that the effect of music therapy has been positive in a variety of ways among the residents.

"We see a great impact when our residents with dementia engage with music therapy because they present with a happier outlook on life, greater social interaction, better self expression and moods, improved interest and increased positive communication," she says.

"But that's not all - our residents sleep better and some seem to even show diminished levels of physical pain. It can help them remember joyful experiences in their lives that they may have otherwise forgotten. Like Willis, he can't always remember my name, but he knows all the words to Frank Sinatra's song My Way!"

The activities programme at Milesian Manor is open to both residents and the Milesian Day Club members and, alongside musical therapy, also boasts YOPI (yoga-inspired exercise for older persons), mindfulness, zesty zumba, pet therapy, arts and crafts and even movie sessions in the cinema.

For enquiries about the Milesian Day Club or residing at Milesian Manor, visit www.milesianmanor.com or call 028 7963 1842

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