Music in advanced dementia, how do we cost and value pure joy?

In a world of finite resources, the economist job is, in principle, to help make decisions about how best to spend the resources that we have. In the case of people with dementia, we are working on trying to understand how best to spend increasingly pressured health and social care budgets… and perhaps we are also trying to help make the case for spending more on care overall.

Few of us can imagine what it is like to be in the advanced stages of dementia and no longer be able to speak. As economists we still have little idea about how to quantify quality of life and well being, and are still struggling with understanding the “value” of even small changes in the mood of people who cannot complete our standard questionnaires. We are trying to learn how to do this, and there are good studies under way.

I am grateful to the British Association for Music Therapy for inviting me to their roundtable on ‘Music therapy and dementia: enriching life when it is needed most’ today in London. I have left the meeting profoundly impressed by what I have seen and heard, and very aware of the immense challenge researchers have to be able to capture fairly the immense joy that music, art and other less typically clinical therapies have, particularly for the very people that the all powerful pharmaceutical companies have not yet found a way to help.

I haven’t been able to find the musical videos shown today, but the sheer joy that comes out of this one sums up just what, as an economist, I fear we may never to be capture well enough in our data. Pure joy. From a person who can no longer speak.

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