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Hospice UK National Conference 2017: straight talking about death and the power of music and memory

Author: Leila Hawkins
24 November 2017

Day two of Hospice UK's National Conference continued with talks and presentations from a wide variety of fields.

Broadcaster and journalist Dame Joan Bakewell gave a powerful, poetic talk about discussing death openly.  She was introduced by Hospice UK Chairman Lord Howard of Lympne, who noted  that her programmes about aging and dying have inspired many to become involved with the hospice movement. 

Joan began by saying that the end of life is as precious as the beginning, and that now  she is in her mid-80s (the "autumn of her life" as she referred to it), she has embraced aging, and is open about issues such as the songs she wants played at her funeral. 

A few years ago Radio 4 would have deemed a programme talking frankly about death too dark, and Joan recalled the time when no one wanted to look at a dead body, children were discouraged from going to funerals, and cancer was called the big C. 

This is something she has aimed to change with her work, with programmes dealing with themes like what happens when you die, and terms as explicit as what exactly rigor mortis is, how to get ready for dying, handling affairs like power of attorney and will writing, and with people living longer, how they are also spending longer dying. Upcoming programmes are based on the public's request, and will explore donating bodies to science, burials at sea, and leaving behind digital belongings. 
 
Later in the afternoon Andy Lowndes spoke about the impact music has on people with dementia. His Playlist for Life initiative creates personalised soundtracks which stir memories in patients and have even helped with mobilty. 

The inspiration for the project came from journalist Mimi Beard Magnusson, wife of television  presenter Magnus Magnusson. She had loved telling stories until her ability to communicate was  affected by the condition. When in distress it was not medication that helped, but song, as Andy explained,  songs that reminded her of family members and specific occasions like parties and road trips sitting in the back of the car. 

The audience was asked to select a track they would put on their own playlists, and songs as diverse as Rod Stewart's We Are Sailing to Morecambe & Wise's Bring Me Sunshine cropped up. 

As Andy explained, the part of the brain that stores music and memory is the last to be damaged by dementia, and brain scanners have shown how playing a familiar melody to someone looks like a "firework going off." Several moving videos of patients dancing and showing affection to their loved ones showed just how powerful a tool music is in transforming their lives and relationships with those around them.  

The programme for day two also included a talk on how to get involved with Dying Matters, a Q&A on funding apprenticeships as part of workforce development, and the introduction of the new funeral business by St Margaret's Hospice in Taunton.  

For more information visit Hospice UK National Conference 2017

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