Forfar music café brings support to families dealing with dementia

Six years ago the congregation of Forfar East and Old Church of Scotland decided to do something to support people with dementia and their families. Now trainee healthcare workers visit the Church to see first-hand why it has gained a reputation for best practice in dementia support.

volunteers at music cafe
Helping out at the music café were (from left) Bruce Simpson, pianist Margaret Anderson, Rhona Cathcart and Alzheimers Scotland dementia advisor Lindsay Shaw.

Every Monday afternoon the congregation of Forfar East and Old hosts a music cafe that brings around 40-50 people together to sing their hearts out.

As their voices ring out with the words of old favourites and well-known hymns, you can see feet start to tap and faces light up with the pure joy of a great sing-song.

What’s not so obvious is that some of those hearty singers have dementia and this precious hour of the week is one of the few times when many of them can take part in life on an equal footing.

People who might not speak much at all outside of the café can often sing songs all the way through.

“It gives people with dementia a very caring environment where they can feel safe,” says Rev Barbara Ann Sweetin, who started the music café six years ago when she began her ministry at Forfar East and Old.

“They come with their carers and there is singing, talking and a safe place to share those old memories that they all have. It is really good to see people come alive and enjoy themselves in good company.

“It’s a good support for carers and I think every one of us comes away feeling happy and uplifted.”

Sally Shepherd and Gladys Ferrier
Sally Shepherd and Gladys Ferrier come to support carers and enjoy good company

Partnership with Alzheimers Scotland

Mrs Sweetin had heard of ‘Singing for the Brain’ and wondered if the church could do something like that. She consulted with church elder Pat Brodlie, a dementia expert who works for Alzheimers Scotland, and they created a partnership that, she says, has been “crucial to getting it right”.

Mrs Brodlie gave the minister and church volunteers a two-week training, that taught them the dos and don’ts of dementia support.

Mrs Sweetin says:

“We learned how to communicate better. We don’t raise our voices or move too abruptly and we are careful to respect people’s personal space. We might say it’s a great day today, or you are looking well today, but we don’t ask 'What did you do yesterday?' or 'What happened last weekend?'”

Five years on the music café is seen as part of the Church’s identity in the Forfar community, and the volunteers have gone on to add a dance session every second week—the Friday Fling.

Each week at the café, four of the 20 volunteers from the church are on hand to meet, greet and seat the singers. One of them is usually Margaret Anderson, who sits at the piano playing songs such as: Pack up Your Troubles; Daisy Daisy; I belong to Glasgow; My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean; Jesus Loves me; and many more.

Tea and biscuits are served during a short break. And every session finishes with the same hymn: One more step along the world I go.

Attendees at Forfar music cafe

Singing is beneficial

The music café is open to everyone. You don’t have to be a church member, have dementia or be a carer to attend. People come from across Angus, and include several carers whose partners have now died from their illness.

Sally Shepherd’s husband David died in 2013, but she still comes to support other carers.

“I like the singing and I come for the company,” she says. “The actual act of singing itself is beneficial. You could see the pleasure David got from it and that was proof. But it is the friendship as well and getting out of where they are living. Coming here is great.”

Sally’s friend Gladys Ferrier, who lost her husband 50 years ago as a young woman, says she comes to enjoy the good company.

“I never used to like Mondays,” she says. “But now I look forward to Mondays.”

Sheena Gray comes with her husband Stewart, who has memory loss, yet is still able to sing all the words to the songs.

“It’s great to come here. It’s very good. We’ve been coming since it started,” she says.

“You meet other people in your situation. And the fact that the women cater for us with teas, biscuits and so on is so helpful. So coming to church and coming here and Stewart comes to the dancing on a Friday too. This is our social activity, the main activity of our week.”


Rev Margaret Shuttleworth, minister at Sauchie and Colesnaughton, said she has been inspired to do something along the lines of a music café in her own parish.

“It is incredible to see people sitting with their heads down, but the moment the music starts they lift their heads and start singing. To be able to offer this to the community is so exciting.”

The focus on dementia support has led to all kinds of other changes for the church, Mrs Sweetin says—from installing plasma screens with blue words on a yellow background, to removing barriers and using pictures as signposts instead of words.

At present the church is closed for renovations, Mrs Sweetin says, but the congregation decided to rent a nearby hall so they could keep the music café going.

“It is important to be dependable so the only days we will not be open are the Mondays after Christmas and New Year.”

Kirk at forefront of dementia care

The Church of Scotland has been at the forefront of supporting people with dementia and their carers. Forfar East and Old is just one of many churches that have partnered with Alzheimers Scotland to run supportive services such as cafes and singing groups.

The Guild’s annual gathering last year featured broadcaster Sally Magnusson who talked about Playlist for Life, a charity that also uses music to reach people with memory problems.

The Church’s social care council CrossReach, besides caring for older people in residentialcare, has also launched Heart for Art groups that use painting and art to support people with dementia.

Find a Heart for Art group.

Find out more about CrossReach services.

Forfar East and Old Music Café next meets at 2 pm Monday 20 Feb in Forfar OAP hall.