The pilot-music therapy program offered by Uniting AgeWell represents much more than a treatment strategy for David Ross Smith. For the music teacher from Glen Iris, the program is a practical way to ensure the legacy of his late-partner, Rev David Hodges, will continue.
Throughout his career, Mr Hodges recognised the vital role of the church in helping others.
“That was very important in David’s ministry, not only to his own parish but the wider community. He was a great believer in the church being involved in the community, so established a number of community based programs for the elderly, for families, for the young and for the arts.”
Mr Ross Smith also feels the name of the program – Music for David – recognises the bravery that was apparent in how Mr Hodges lived his life, as well as his love for the church.
“The reason David retired as minister from Toorak UC was because of our relationship.
“David’s family knew, but there was a greater concern there was going to be public exposure.
“The reason he decided to retire was not only to protect his family from gossip and criticism and scandal – that was 30 years ago and homophobia was rife in 1983 – but he wanted to protect his congregation. He didn’t want the church he loved to be damaged.”
It was this close association with the church that prompted Mr Ross Smith to turn to Uniting AgeWell (then Uniting Aged Care) when he realised he needed help caring for his partner.
“David and I had a wonderful relationship based on love and trust,” Mr Ross Smith said.
“I knew he wanted to stay at home as long as possible rather than going into a nursing home. I promised him that I would look after him as long as I possibly could.
“I just needed some support for two hours a day; it started at two days and then was increased to three days per week.”
Although Mr Ross Smith describes caring for his partner as a privilege, he says it is important for carers to recognise they need time out as well.
“As the evening is approaching often people with dementia become anxious and unsettled, a condition known as ‘sun downer’s syndrome’. This occurred with David for the last 12 or 18 months of his life,” Mr Ross Smith said.
“Being a musician, I immediately thought of the therapeutic benefits of music. I would settle him in his chair and put on music that he enjoyed, the hymn ‘Be Still My Soul’ was one of his favourites.
“It meant that I could go for a walk. It might only be 10 minutes, but I knew for that time I was able to relax. Having that time out to go for a walk in the late afternoon was actually invigorating for me.”
Mr Ross Smith kept his promise and, with the help of Mr Hodges’ daughters, ensured he died a peaceful death surrounded by loved ones in his own home.
That was when a new chapter opened for Mr Ross Smith. Not only was he grieving, he was adjusting to a life where he was no longer a carer – a role that had defined his identity for the past few years.
Through his grief and loss, once again Mr Ross Smith turned to music.
“Music was not only therapeutic for David during his illness; it has been helpful to me during my grieving process since his death. Being a musician I have the benefit of not only listening to music, but being able to ‘make’ music myself.”
Nyree Shandley is a respite coordinator with Uniting AgeWell and the Music for David coordinator. She said that while the benefits of music for those living with dementia have long been recognised in residential settings, little research has occurred with those being cared for at home.
“At David’s funeral, his family advised they wished donations to be directed to the carer respite service to assist others caring for a family member with dementia. This memorial gift became the foundation of the Music for David project.
“Participants will be invited to take part from throughout the eastern and southern metropolitan regions of Melbourne. A before and after comparison process will be used.”
Mr Ross Smith has used his love of music to honour his partner’s memory by fundraising for the pilot project. Both he and Ms Shandley said it is a happy coincidence they shared a first name, as the program recognises the importance of music for both carers and those they care for as they journey through illness together.
The Golden Years of Musical Comedy is a fundraising concert for Uniting AgeWell’s ‘Music for David’ project on Sunday 17 November, 4pm at Toorak Uniting Church. See the ‘Coming Events’ section for details.