Photo: Gary Thorpe chats music and memories with (from left) Chris Murphy, Pam Ewald, Joy Boon, Anne Fielder and Gwen Lloyd at the Zion Lutheran Aged Care facility in Nundah, Brisbane.
TEN years ago Gary Thorpe’s neighbour Jean had a stroke. She ended up in aged care and he’d go to visit her every weekend.
“There was nothing there to interest her,” he recalls. “She didn’t like bingo and wasn’t a fan of TV.”
One weekend Gary went to visit and found her parked in front of a sports program. She’d been there three interminable hours, unable to move – and she hated sport.
Gary Thorpe chats music and memories with (from left) Chris Murphy, Pam Ewald, Joy Boon, Anne Fielder and Gwen Lloyd at the Zion Lutheran Aged Care facility in Nundah, Brisbane.After around four months, Gary noticed Jean was disengaging. Distressed, he decided: ‘I’ve got to do something for people like Jean.’
Gary, now 66, is general manager of a community radio station in Brisbane. One thing that did seem to light Jean up, he noticed, was talking about her courting days in the ’30s and ’40s and the music that had accompanied them.
He decided to set up a radio station specifically aimed at elderly people in nursing homes, playing music and sharing memories from their youth.
The idea was to lift their mood and stop them feeling lonely and socially isolated – factors which are thought to increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
“They can reminisce and that’s the basis of the whole format.”
He called the station Silver Memories, and since it started in 2007, the response has been extraordinary.
One woman hadn’t spoken for five years but when Silver Memories was switched on, she suddenly announced, “I remember this song.”
“She frightened the life out of the staff member in her room. They’d practically given up talking to her,” Gary laughs.
A grateful husband sent Gary a large cheque and a note thanking him for giving him back his wife and his life. She had Alzheimer’s and barely even recognised him anymore. Silver Memories brought her out of her shell and she started talking to him again.
More and more grateful messages were received – the station’s broadcasts helped relieve depression, they said, and triggered happy memories, helped people relax and improved opportunities for staff and residents to chat about something other than whether it was time for medication.
There was also evidence it reduced both physical and verbal agitation as a result of which, Gary says, the Queensland and federal governments are currently funding research to investigate this further.
In essence, Silver Memories is a 24-hour nostalgia radio station. It plays music from the 1920s to the early ’60s and is transmitted Australia-wide via satellite. Most of the volunteer announcers were broadcasters in the ’40s and ’50s.
“They’re [announcers] reliving their glory days so it’s a passion, a shared experience,” Gary says. “They can tell listeners, ‘Oh, I remember seeing Judy Garland in Meet Me In St Louis’. They can reminisce and that’s the basis of the whole format: Reminiscence Therapy.”
Reminiscence Therapy isn’t new. It can be images, poetry or décor but music works particularly well because it registers on multiple sites of the brain. That means even if the brain is very badly affected by a stroke or illness, there’ll still be a site left that recognises music.
“What’s really amazing is that 2500 years ago, Hippocrates was recommending music as a treatment,” Gary says. “I’m amazed that learning was lost. It’s sheer magic how it works.”
But why not just put on a CD? “Radio is much more personal and targeted,” Gary explains. “Our presenters talk to listeners not at them, they’re having a conversation with people of the same age and that’s what cuts through isolation.”
“The feedback over just that little thing is enormous — it’s a validation of a life.”
For dementia sufferers, especially, it’s also much better than television. Images on a TV screen change every three or four seconds and one of the first signs of dementia is difficulty in following a plot line. A song, in comparison, is comfortingly repetitious.
Silver Memories employs numerous devices to keep listeners engaged. They have a music therapist on staff (her wage is paid via a grant) and nothing is broadcast simply to fill a silence.
Mornings begin with cheerios and birthday greetings while the station’s resident poet writes a poem about a listener, based on details given to him by nursing home staff.
There are themed programs, a ‘Year That Was’ show in which broadcasters discuss the music, films and news from a particular year, and a regular series about favourite singers.
Silver Memories also provides show-related activity kits for therapists to further engage residents and encourage reminiscence.
In 2011, Gary was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit other countries using music for dementia management. Silver Memories, he discovered, was the only specialised radio station and has caused great international interest.
His only sadness now is that Jean died before getting to hear the station she inspired.
“Most things that happen to you only change a bit of your life but moving into a nursing home changes everything,” Gary says.
“Silver Memories brings into their living environment things that are familiar and that’s so important.”
Nursing homes pay $375 to $500 per quarter for the service. You can also listen to Silver Memories from your computer online, but due to costs, it will become a subscription-based service for all in 2017.
For more info or to subscribe, visit 4mbs.com.au/silver or email firstname.lastname@example.org