A holiday concert by fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy will cater specifically to an older audience member who may be restless or suddenly find the music too loud. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

MacMaster holiday concert billed as dementia-inclusive

TORONTO — A holiday concert by fiddlers Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy is being billed as dementia-inclusive, for providing audience members with large-font printed lyrics, ear plugs and fidget tools.

The married performers are bringing their seasonal show A Celtic Family Christmas to Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday, when the event will be driven by a novel partnership between the venue and a seniors residence chain.

Amica Senior Lifestyles, which owns and operates 29 locations in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, says the event will cater specifically to an older audience member who may be restless or suddenly find the music too loud.

Amica’s national director of cognitive well-being says the show might include extra breaks, allow listeners to walk up and down the aisles during the show, or encourage an enthusiastic listener to sing along with the performers.

Dr. Heather Palmer says music is a powerful way to bring peace and joy to those with dementia. She says even those who many not be very responsive can transform into “a completely different person” when they hear music.

Amica says it plans to team up with Roy Thomson Hall for more concerts in 2019.

“Hands down, music seems to be a very significant gateway for many, if not most, people who have some form of dementia in terms of bringing peace, bringing calm, bringing pleasure, bringing joy,” says Palmer, who notes she’s heartened to see similar initiatives pop up across the country.

“They might start clapping their hands, they might actually start verbalizing and singing to the music or oftentimes you will just see this sense of peace and happiness come over if you’re watching them behaviourally, so music is a fantastic gateway. The more we can do this with musical venues would be fantastic.”

The lyrics, ear plugs and fidget tools will be made available at the concert to those who need them.

Palmer notes it’s important to reach out to people with dementia through multiple senses — including visuals, smells, and tactile objects. And it’s always important to offer opportunities where someone can enjoy the same things they did before their diagnosis.

“We’re hoping to evoke feelings and reminiscences and emotional connection to their past and their memories and that sort of thing, so we want to make sure there’s a good mix of songs that they’re most likely to be familiar with.”

While the concert is open to everyone, Palmer says there will be a large contingent from local Amica residences. Concerts such as these can also be powerful for family members who accompany loved ones with dementia, she adds.

“There is oftentimes, just due to lack of understanding, the belief that if Grandma or Grandpa can’t speak or if they’re not engaging all the time in the way that they used to that they’re not really there anymore. But our belief system is that they’re very much there.

“It’s our responsibility to figure out how we can reach them and how we can best support them so that they can continue to life a good quality of life.”

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