Christmas carols a bridge to hidden memories

Pastoral care staff have spoken of the overwhelming emotional and spiritual responses from aged care residents living with dementia, many with high care needs, during a series of Christmas carol events for them at Hammondville in southwestern Sydney.

In one case, resident Roy, 71, was so moved by Oh Come All Ye Faithful he picked up a guitar for the first time in months and started strumming and joined in singing.

In another case, resident Anne, who has been non-verbal for some time, began dancing spontaneously to the tunes.

From left, Kim Nguyen, Carol Blanchard, Jon Paolo and Moanna Muller sing carols at Hammondville

Pastoral Care Coordinator Carol Blanchard said the carols held at Hammondville’s dementia-specific cottages at Southwood, Harding, The Meadows and Bond House were powerful in stirring memories in residents and producing strong reactions.

“I  noticed how a resident whom I’ve never seen smile before actually smile sometimes while he listening to us sing familiar Christmas carols,” Carol said.

“Some people who remembered  the music but not the lyrics mouthed the words as they sang along with smiles on their faces.”

“At other times, a few residents had tears running down their cheeks during the singing of the hymn Silent Night,’’ she said.

“A few residents had tears running down their cheeks during the singing of the hymn Silent Night.’’- Carol Blanchard

Carol joined other members of the pastoral care team including Jon Paolo, Moana Muller and pastoral care volunteer Kim Nguyen in a series of carol services at Hammondville. Grant Murray led the services in the Meadows cottages. Volunteer manager Debbie Webster also gave support.

Jon, who led with his guitar, said one gentleman on a walking frame spontaneously began to dance to one carol.

“The carols caused an impact in people living with dementia that I have not seen before,” Jon said.

Leading Christmas carols is just one of the many ways the HammondCare pastoral care team provides social and emotional support, strengthening relationship-based care throughout the year for residents, clients and patients.

John Swinton, author of Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, and a world leader in disability theology, said carols were like a bridge to memories for people living with dementia.

“When the music releases our memories, we are taken to a time and a space where things were very different.” – John Swinton

One of the things that I have learned over the years is that no matter how distant a person may appear to be, there is always a way to cross that bridge and finding a way of connecting,” Professor Swinton said.

“Music is a wonderful example of what that looks like. It’s a form of communication that seems able to get behind and beyond our neurological damage to those places in our brains where memories are hiding.

“The brain takes the musical signals and redirects them via different, unbroken neural paths where our memories hide. When the music releases our memories, we are taken to a time and a space where things were very different.

“With God, there is always a bridge.” – John Swinton

“For people living with dementia who have a background of faith, they may have allowed the spirit of worship to shape and form them over many years. Now when they can’t remember, their body continues to resonate to the rhythms of the Spirit. With God, there is always a bridge.”

HammondCare boosted its pastoral care team numbers by more than 10 per cent in the past year, deeply integrating their role more than ever on the frontline of relationship-based care.

General Manager Pastoral Care Steve Calder says an increase in his staff in 2023 will allow the team to support more residents, clients and patients and engage in spirituality in ways that are meaningful to them.

“Pastoral care has been a key distinctive of HammondCare’s relationship-based care for the past 90 years and continues to champion the intrinsic value of each person,” Rev Calder said.