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Dementia Action Week: Birmingham’s older people benefiting from musical exchange project

Birmingham residents are benefiting from a series of successful workshops to engage older people living with memory issues and dementia through making music across five of the city’s retirement communities.

Musicians from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) first partnered with The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, a registered charity that exists to enable better lives for older people, to deliver the Music Exchange Project in 2014. Five years on, the initiative is still going strong, sessions have doubled and more of the city’s older people are benefiting from the scheme than ever before.

The benefits of musical therapy are currently being highlighted in Vicky McClure’s Dementia Choir, being broadcast on BBC One. The Music Exchange Project invites those living with dementia and their partners to participate in interactive music sessions with three to four professional musicians.

For those living with dementia, musical therapy has been proven to effectively help reduce the behavioural and psychological symptoms connected to the disease. Different parts of the brain are stimulated with music meaning those who had previously been withdrawn are enabled to become involved and better express themselves.

Michael Spellman, ExtraCare’s Dementia Lead comments: “The best thing about the project is that all of the music is improvised. The music created can be sounds the person likes, or that link to a memory they have, or can be a reflection of how they are feeling that day. It is a onetime piece, with the skilled musicians creating pieces of music around what the residents are playing, so regardless of musical ability a person living with dementia can fully participate and be under no pressure to ‘get things right’.

“There are social benefits too. The Music Exchange is a small and inclusive group so is conducive to building strong relationships. Residents attend eight weekly sessions so we begin to see social cohesion build and connections develop outside of the group between residents who may have had little to do with each other before.”

Resident at Longbridge Village Bill Cobb, aged 76 said: “The CBSO crew are a lovely set of people, very friendly and very talented. They get us to join in. Try things out… I guess my talent was lying dormant, ExtraCare and in particular, Claire and the EOP, have given me the confidence to do it.”

Dementia continues to be a priority for the charity which now seeks an academic partner to quantify the improvements in well-being shown in the residents who take part in the project. Its commitment to those living with dementia is also further being demonstrated with the launch of two guidance documents this coming Dementia Action Week (20-26 May): an inclusive design standard for housing developers and a guide to help all on responding to those with dementia showing signs of distress for everyone.

The project with CBSO is set to continue too and, with the focus of the group is on enablement, partners and children will also benefit from attending with loved ones.

Michael continues: “In the sessions, family members get to witness the loved one in a ‘different light, in an environment where they are unable to make mistakes. We find many participants continue to stay more alert and engaged after for hours, even days, after the session has concluded.”

Bill’s wife, Ann Cobb, aged 73 comments: “The music sounds so wonderful and is so uplifting. The musicians are so friendly and helpful, and mindful of the needs of the group. It brings back childhood memories, encourages participation and co-operation and much fun and laughter is enjoyed by all… I knew the move [to Longbridge] could help us both but never dreamed that it could make such a significant difference to Bill. It has given us both a new lease of life, full and meaningful.”

Thanks to funding the Music Exchange project is up and running at ExtraCare’s five retirement villages in Birmingham and has formed part of its award-winning and specialist Enriched Opportunities Programmes, specialist service for those with dementia.

Claire Williams, Dementia support worker at Longbridge Village said: “Having three classically trained musicians playing in an intimate setting for you is just a magical experience. We get to join in, play with instruments, improvise and create beautiful music together. The sense of connection and enjoyment leaves everyone feeling full of joy.”

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For more information please contact: Cheryl Flounders on 02476 507 917 or at

The ExtraCare Charitable Trust

ExtraCare is a registered charity established in 1988 and based in Coventry. Our vision is better lives for older people and our mission is creating sustainable communities that provide homes older people want, lifestyles they can enjoy and care if it’s needed. To deliver our vision and mission we essentially do three things:

  • We develop new villages
  • We operate villages and schemes
  • We support our villages, schemes and our ‘extra-care’ model through fundraising, advocacy and research

Each village or scheme has 5 to 18 social, health and leisure facilities that are accessible to our residents, volunteers and local people representing all age groups living in surrounding communities. Our Charity Shops help fund care and well-being services for older people living at our each of our locations.

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