In all forms of dementia there is a loss of protein, effectively cutting off the vital connections of the brain. Yet, it can't be as simple as that. Vestiges of old memories seem to lie dormant with sufferers, as if waiting for that essential trigger to spring them back to the forefront of consciousness again.
It was with this in mind that a programme called Music for Life was started in 1993. It was set up to use music to find the person behind the dementia. From this original, small group, a much larger organisation has now been handed over to Wigmore Hall in London. In May, the transition was launched attended by the charity's royal patron, HRH Princess Alexandra.
The latest remit for the charity is for a group of classical musicians, some from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, to take their instruments to nursing homes and provide around eight sessions involving dementia patients and their carers. As soon as the residents arrive, some in wheelchairs, some with sticks or walking-frames, the musicians strike up a pre-improvised melody. Subtle, entrancing and hypnotic, it's composed especially to alter mood through both the rhythm and dynamics.
The musicians move around the residents, singing a welcoming serenade to each person in turn. It is noticeable that each sufferer responds in a different way, according to the level of their dementia. Some say nothing, merely mouthing smiles, whilst others shout out apparently disconnected words. The whole point, though, is to evoke something in people whose minds are often switched off from the here and now.
The musicians themselves say that these sessions are totally different from their regular work. ‘You have to leave behind a lot of the preconceptions you have about playing classical music', says one. ‘We're not just playing music at people; we're trying to engage them in the process of making it.' After the initial welcome, various instruments are handed out to the residents: a triangle, xylophone, maracas, bells or drum, each being chosen with a resident in mind. For example, if it is known that a sufferer used to play an instrument in their youth, then wherever possible, that is the one they are given.
This time, each musician moves around the circle, playing a different tune for each resident, each designed to wheedle out some kind of reaction, however bizarre. It is very moving to see the shy people suddenly open up and the particularly noisy ones become serene. At one nursing home recently, an elderly man who used to play drums in his youth but has since regressed into not speaking at all, was given a drum during one of the charity's sessions. Afterwards, there was an amazing breakthrough when he spoke to the musician - the first time in years that he had uttered a word.
There are about 700,000 people with dementia in the UK. The idea is that, with the clout of Wigmore Hall, more and more sufferers can now reap the benefits.
My own feeling is that the power of music stirs something thought long gone. It's rather like thinking about an ex-spouse: they may be gone from your life at the moment, but the memory lingers on deep within you.