My dad didn’t have dementia, but the power of music still spoke to him
By Grace Meadows. Published 2020-09-23
Grace Meadows is Programme Director for Music for Dementia, a national campaign leading the call to make music freely available for everyone living with dementia
One of the things I hear a lot of older people say is ‘I wish I had learnt to play…’ or ‘I wasn’t any good at music at school, so I didn’t keep going with my music lessons…’. I remember my dad saying to me once just how much he wished he could play the piano and how, if he could have his time again, he would have had piano lessons. I have no doubt that he could have been a great player and would have loved playing the crooner classics of Roger Whittaker and others such as Matt Monro. Whenever he visited me, he couldn’t resist a little tinkle of the ivories on my piano, and the bashfulness with which he played brought out another side of him that I rarely saw.
I’m telling you this because it turned out to be important when it came to my dad’s final few hours earlier this year, when I had a window into his musical world in those moments. I had no idea just how much of a crooner fan he was, and I will never forget the smile on his face when we played him some Matt Monro tracks as we helped him make his way to meet our mum. My dad didn’t have dementia, but the power of music still spoke to him. And in those moments with him it was about us knowing how to use music and what type of music was needed to connect and be with him. This is the essence of our campaign; you don’t have to be ‘musical’ to make the music happen for someone who you think might benefit from it. It is more about knowing how, when and where to enable the music to flow. If you’re caring for someone who you know loves music, it’s about working out with them what music they enjoy, how they like to experience it and when during the day or night they would like to experience it. It can be as simple as putting together a playlist that you can share together at moments during the day, when you can connect and be in the here and now together.
If you’re someone who feels they wouldn’t know where to begin, help is at hand. We have created a practical musical guide (available on our website), with ideas and tips of things you might like to try to help make music a part of your day. We produced this as lockdown was introduced, so it speaks to how music can help bridge the gap created by ongoing social distancing rules. All the ideas in the guide are things you can try at home and are a mix of digital and physical ideas. We also have a Musical Map of musical services and activities for people living with dementia and their carers. At the moment, most of the services listed are digital offers, but there’s a great range – everything from dementia discos, choirs, to live performances. Not all of them are exclusively for people living with dementia, and even if they are, why not give them a try? I say, ‘What’s good for people living with dementia is good for us all’ and music is good for everyone’s brain!
Why is it important to help keep the music going? For people who have conditions such as dementia, that strip away their agency and autonomy, being able to engage in something that provides them with opportunities to make choices and decisions, can be so powerful and motivating. It can be highly rewarding both for the person living with dementia and the person caring for them. A difficult moment can be transposed into a moment of shared joy and connection. And it’s these moments of joy that sustain us in life and what make us human.
If you’re reading this thinking ‘I wish I could play the piano, guitar, trumpet, double bass…’, whatever instrument it might be, (I’m thinking about my cello that I’m trying to learn how to play) then it’s not too late and you still can. Music has a transformative power on our brains; it supports brain health by working the neural pathways, stretching our neuroplasticity and keeping our brains in shape. Learning a new skill is, in itself, a workout for the brain and can be highly rewarding, creating positive mood and a real sense of achievement. It’s also something you can share with others, both in the learning process and the performing. Learning something as simple as three chords on a guitar opens up a catalogue of music to you which you can share with others.
I will forever more listen to the music of Roger and Matt with different ears and deep affection for what joy they brought my dad.
One of life’s greatest gifts is being able to share and pass on music and there’s no better way to do that than through a song or piece of music that means something to you. So, don’t put it off any longer, go learn that instrument, put that playlist together and remember you are a musical being!
To find out more, visit Musicfordementia here
- Dementia UK
- Alzheimer's Society - United Kingdom