Nia Davies Williams is musician in residence at Bryn Seiont Newydd in Nοrth Wales
Back in November 2015, Bryn Seiont Newydd, part of the Pendine Park care company, opened its doors for the first time, a dementia care centre for over 100 residents. Mario and Gill Kreft, who own the company, shared a vision that music would be a central feature of life at the care home.
Not only would they make sure that a musician regularly came to the home, but they would go a step further by employing a resident musician to work in the home four days a week. It was an unusual step for homeowners to make, but because of Mario and Gill’s passion for music, they understood the importance of this medium for people living with dementia.
I had completed an MA degree which focused on the relationship between music and dementia, and when I heard about the plans for this progressive building, I knew straight away that this was the job for me! I have worked at Bryn Seiont Newydd from day one and consider myself extremely lucky to be doing a job I love. A challenging job at times but at the same time rewarding (Davies Williams 2021).
Well, the pandemic came, and like everywhere else Bryn Seiont Newydd went into lockdown. My piano lessons came to an end along with the freelance singing I was doing in other homes. I was expecting a phone call or email from work saying that I couldn’t work for the time being at the home considering the circumstances. But it turned out instead that my job had become more important than ever.
Seeing so many of my peers experience their work drying up, I was acutely aware of how lucky I was to continue working. Part of my job as musician in residence was to organise outside entertainment to come to Bryn Seiont Newydd and I had built up many great contacts who visited regularly: choirs, the local arts centre, a dance company, local primary and nursery schools, to name just a few. The home has a spacious music room, and we are used to welcoming all the choirs until the music room is bursting with music!
I had to pull the plug on all this straight away. Plus, we could not bring the residents together into the music room as one big crowd. The care home had been divided into 12 lounges with approximately nine residents in each lounge. Movement between lounges had to be restricted in case of a possible Covid-19 infection.
I had to think of an idea of how to deliver live music safely to the residents. By liaising with a few local schools, I managed to acquire four unused school pianos and placed them at strategic locations in the home, although the grand piano in the music room that used to accompany the choirs had to be idle for now.
I also used my Celtic harp during the mini-music sessions. Strict rules had to be adhered to, so a mask, visor, and a bucket of anti-bacterial wipes became my daily tools as well as changing my clothes on arriving and leaving my own home. These mini-music sessions became an opportunity for me to get to know more of the residents and their taste in music and my aim was to make sure each lounge could experience some live music every week.
The news frequently focused on the frustration and anxiety felt by families in not being able to visit their loved ones for periods that felt cruelly long. They found talking over the phone, or even on Facetime, hard to do when residents were sometimes unable to recognise their voices or even their faces on screen.
A special way of connecting
Yet the ability to sing remains with most people with dementia. It was pure pleasure to hear tears of joy from one daughter as her father sang the popular Welsh hymn Calon Lân down the phone while I accompanied him on piano. Another man sang Watching the White Wheat to the harp’s accompaniment while his son watched and listened through Facetime. This was a special way of connecting – often the only way – and families found it invaluable.
I got proposals from outside the home to participate in online concerts, but this kind of digital engagement was a challenge too far for our residents. Instead, our home continued to sing and smile throughout the pandemic and, as I write, it looks as if we are slowly coming out of this distressing and frustrating time. The staff at the home are like one big family and there have been no Covid cases amongst the residents, something I put down to a combination of sticking to the rules and a good dose of luck!
At the time of writing, the families are back, but in special visiting pods or for a stroll around the gardens. But it is going to get better, and we are keeping a close eye on government rules as they evolve. In this spirit, we are organising our first concert out in the garden and looking forward immensely to welcoming all our musical friends back to Bryn Seiont Newydd.
Davies Williams N (2021) Art in response to music – involving children too. Journal of Dementia Care 29(2) 18-20.