Only music reached my wife after dementia hit, says John Suchet

By James Tapper

When John Suchet discovered the effect that music had on his wife Bonnie’s dementia, it was transformational. “She would close her eyes and love it, beat in time to the music with her hands, tap her feet,” he said.

The former ITN newscaster’s wife had lost her ability to speak. She had been locked inside her head, sitting blankly, apparently unable to make sense of the outside world.

“Music just seems to get through to them,” Suchet told the Observer. “I just want carers to be aware that music is a very, very powerful tool.”

Now Suchet wants to raise awareness of the effect of music on dementia patients. New research shows that only 16% of people with dementia frequently engaged with music.

The Opinium survey of more than 1,000 people who were close to someone with dementia, conducted in March on behalf of the campaign group Music for Dementia, found that 58% of sufferers “rarely, occasional or never” engage with music.

Half of the participants in the survey said either they had no access to music activities or did not know where to find them.

Suchet had been married to his American wife Bonnie for 30 years when she was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2006, aged 64. He was her carer until 2010, when she moved into a Hertfordshire care home.

Nula with Suchet. They met while caring for their former spouses, who both had vascular dementia.
Nula with Suchet. They met while caring for their former spouses, who both had vascular dementia. Photograph: Andrew Crowley/Telegraph

“[At Bonnie’s care home] there was a pianist who came to play for them every week and the residents loved it,” Suchet said. “But it takes a bit of a leap to think, ‘If I put headphones into my wife’s ears and play her favourite music, is that going to be really valuable?’”

“You expect to grow old with your spouse – you’re the same age, roughly,” he said. “So why has it happened to them, not you? Every single carer of a spouse with dementia feels guilt all the time. And the ultimate feeling of guilt is when you have to take them from their home and hand them over. So when something comes along that gives them a feeling of pleasure, you seize it.”

People with dementia can become agitated or depressed, and Bonnie would often sit blankly until Suchet played her Abba, her favourite band.

Bonnie’s room was close to one occupied by James Black, a film director diagnosed with the disease at the age of 57. His wife Nula, an artist, met Suchet while they were caring for their spouses. They married in 2016, the year after Bonnie and James had died.

“James was very into Mozart – he had written a six-part TV series about Mozart,” Suchet said. “Nula discovered that even when he had lost the power to communicate, all she had to do was put on a Mozart CD and he would just transform. Right at the end of his life, she played Mozart and tears rolled down his cheeks. She knows she was bringing him pleasure through music at a time when words were no use any more.”

Professor Helen Odell-Miller, director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University, said research showed that music could help improve the emotional state of people with dementia, and created a connection between carer and patient.

Nula with her late husband James Black.
Nula with her late husband James Black. Photograph: Courtesy of Nula Suchet

“We know that music is calming, but it can also contribute to how people relate to each other,” she said. “Staff in care homes can embed music in their daily care – if it’s difficult to get someone dressed, music can help.”

As damage caused to the brain by dementia increases, language is stripped away, but beneath it remains an understanding of music, similar to that of babies before they acquire language. “Music can be a way of interacting when language is gone,” Odell-Miller said.

The power of music for dementia sufferers was highlighted last month by Paul Harvey, an 80-year-old retired composer and music teacher with dementia whose song Four Notes went to the top of the charts.

Grace Meadows, campaign director of Music for Dementia, said that Suchet’s experience showed how vital music was for people living with dementia and their carers. She said: “But it’s clear from our survey findings that more music services are needed to meet demand and that there is a lack of awareness about how to access them.”

“We know the care sector has been under extraordinary pressure this year, but looking ahead to 2021, it’s vital that music is at the heart of dementia care and is seen as a priority, as we try to grow back better the care we provide for people living with dementia.”

Suchet, who is now a presenter on Classic FM, said that people should discuss playlists with their loved ones sooner rather than later. “I’m slightly into the music of Beethoven. God forbid I get dementia, but all they’ve got to do is blow Beethoven into my ears and I’ll be happy.”