So….Ta da! :
Dementia was in the news again last week; an article suggesting that singing can help battle dementia; seems an ambitious idea to me. Battle dementia? Really? I have witnessed first-hand the brutal and destructive power of dementia and am not certain that putting on an old tune and singing along could possibly stop dementia in its tracks, or even slow it down. For that is what ‘battle’ implies surely? A fight. The idea that singing can go head to head with dementia in a fair fight, giving hope to many that good will overcome evil. It seems a bit far-fetched to me.
I am now a fully-fledged volunteer at a local singing group for people living with dementia and their Carers. It is a weekly meeting in a local church hall, where a talented ex-teacher plays the piano, several well-meaning volunteers serve tea and cake and the singers ….well, they sing.
I was tasked with manning the kitchen a few weeks ago with an octogenarian called *Jean. Despite having been a volunteer for 12 months, Jean was also new to the kitchen role, but seen as she was more senior to me in her voluntary service, she took the reins and made the decisions with regards to how many cups, how many tea bags per pot, how much coffee in each mug and which cakes to group together on each plate. I was grateful for her leadership, having not been a new girl anywhere for a long time, it was quite a daunting experience and I felt a self-imposed pressure to get it right and not let any of these people down.
Jean was marvellous; a real inspiration and I had a lovely few hours making teas and coffees, serving drinks and cakes and watching a group of about 40 people – carers and dementia patients alike – sing their hearts out.
As they started to fill in at 11am, I noticed a handsome man who was probably only in his fifties. He shuffled in, accompanied by a woman who I assumed was his wife or perhaps his Carer and I noticed him looking at me and I smiled. He smiled back. A few moments later, this man, *Len, returned to the kitchen door and spoke to me. They were not words though, it was a jumble of sounds and I could only guess he perhaps wanted a drink. “Would you like some water?” I asked, trying to communicate with him.
His carer then arrived at his side. “I wondered where he’d gone,” she said. “I don’t know what he wants,” she said, as he continued to talk to me. “Try giving him some water; that might be it.”
I got Len a cup of water and he seemed content with that. I kept catching him watching me throughout the morning’s singing session too and felt so incredibly sad for this handsome man. “Oh lovely Len,” Jean said. “He keeps looking at you. He always used to have such a lovely smile and a cheeky wink for the ladies.”
I was shocked, knowing that Jean has been at the group for only 12 months, I asked her if Len had really declined so much in just a year. “Oh yes,” she replied. “His decline has been rapid.”
I was shocked. I wasn’t shocked by the cruelty of this disease, its indiscriminate viciousness, its callous disregard for anyone who gets in its way, its annihilation and savage destruction of people no longer shocks me. No, simply seeing this lovely man, who was not much younger than my mum at a slightly more advanced state than my mum – that was shocking.
I noticed though that Len was tapping his feet and smiling as the music played. He could not sing, I don’t think he could form the words or keep up with the music, but watching him I could see he was enjoying himself and was more relaxed than I had seen him all morning,
I then took time to look round the room properly. There were people in wheelchairs, unable to sing, unable to drink a cup of tea or eat a slice of the very lovely home-made cake who were still able to respond to the music with smiles and hand gestures. There were ladies who seemed to be in only the early stages of dementia who were singing different harmonies to the rest of the group in a loud and very tuneful operatic style; clearly absolutely loving the chance to sing and perform in a large group. There was a lady who I’d seen shuffle in with her Carer as the session started, I noticed her because she reminded me of my mum in her age, dress and hair-style. She had been led in to the room, (something I had realised with a jolt my mother would also need had she been there) and had sat very quietly and unresponsively as the session got underway. Now though, her face was alive with joy – she wasn’t singing, but the sound of the music, the sound of others singing songs that were familiar to her, the feeling of a shared experience seemed to have lifted her out of her dementia induced reverie.
So, as I read the Daily Mail article I thought back a few weeks to my singing group – to Les and the lady who looked like my mum; to the operatic duo and the wheelchair-bound dementia patients and their dedicated Carers and to Jean and all the other selfless volunteers who try so hard to make a difference. The article talked about new research that has found an area of the brain that apparently is “disproportionately preserved in dementia”, that memories of old songs activate very specific areas of the brain and having looked around the church hall that day I can say with some certainty that singing made a difference.
What I disagree with is that singing can ‘battle’ dementia. I don’t think singing poses a serious threat to the advancement of dementia. It is not an equal combatant in the battle for a patient’s mental faculties. Dementia is too strong and too utterly destructive to be brought to its knees by a bit of a sing-song. No, in my view singing does not help ‘battle’ dementia, but I do think that singing and music help people who are living with dementia. I think that for a few minutes whilst the words and melody of a well-loved song are enjoyed that those who are living with dementia are transported to another time and another place; a happier time, a happier place. Perhaps in years to come we will have other weaponry in our arsenal against dementia, but right now, it seems we don’t have much – other than a sing-song here and there.
So, I will go to my singing group today and I will hand out the song books and help make tea; I will cut cake and help people with their lyrics and I will sing, as loudly and as proudly as I can.
We all will.
*I have changed names as I thought it was the right thing to do