I thought I’d share a little bit of magic with you in advance of Remembrance Sunday. It occurred in Bedford, when grandmother and erstwhile choir member Pat French, who is living with advanced dementia, broke into song.
Pat was a little girl during the second world war and, despite her condition, she still remembers how frightened she was of the air raid sirens. Reminded of the propitious date coming up this weekend by her carer Barbara Marchant, Pat started singing the hymn, I Vow To Thee My Country. Her 87-year-old voice is pure and true.
I must admit, I couldn’t remember all the words so I looked them up, and while Pat may not have remembered the lines in quite the right order, the great thing is that the music and language flow from her so fluently. She is obviously content, living in the moment, enjoying her song. It is absolutely all that matters. Take a look.
Pat has Lewy body dementia, the UK’s third most common form of the condition, affecting about 100,000 people. Among other symptoms are problems with understanding, memory, mobility, hallucinations and confusion.
Barbara, who works for Home Instead Senior Care lost her own mum to dementia. She says that seeing Pat singing was incredibly moving and emotional. “I have seen Pat’s condition rob her of so much, which is why it’s joyous that music can help lift her – it means I can see a little bit of the old her. She is usually quiet, but we love singing together and she lights up when she sings, which just melts my heart”.
Pat’s daughter Emma Muncaster said that although her mum often can’t remember who she is, she remembers the words of her favourite songs. “Music calms mum when she is agitated. She used to be in a choral society; singing takes her back to those happy times and we treasure the moments singing along with her”.
My own mum wasn’t a singer but she loved listening to music, often sashaying about the living room to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, two of her favourite ‘60s crooners. And I’ve written before in the national press about how, one Christmas Eve several years ago, when mum had been lying silent and motionless in her nursing home bed for many months, the two of us listened to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge – possibly her favourite thing, ever – and she opened her eyes.
It was to be the last time I saw my mum alive. She died late at night on Christmas Day, just minutes before I arrived. So those poignant memories of the day before are precious beyond words.
Little did I know it then but meaningful music has a powerful impact on people with even the most advanced dementia. Neurologist Professor Oliver Sacks, concluded that “the past, which is not recoverable in any other way, is embedded in music as if in amber”.
Yet research from the Commission on Dementia and Music shows that good quality music therapies are available in just five percent of care homes, 70 percent of whose residents have dementia.
Hence my ongoing campaign to persuade a national radio station to reintroduce the weekly school’s radio programme, Singing Together (which ran from 1939-99), this time for older people and those with dementia. It need last only twenty minutes or so, introduced by a singer who would lead its listeners (who let’s face it, this being radio, could be anyone from granny living at home to four-year-old Maisie watching her mum cooking) in songs with strong rhythms, rousing choruses and, for those of us slightly older folk, evocative memories.
The idea, I hasten to add, wasn’t mine but that of internationally renowned soprano Lesley Garrett. A letter to the Times signed by scores of key influencers in the dementia sector called on the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall to bring Miss Garrett’s brilliant proposal to life. He politely declined. But I am pursuing other avenues and hope to bring you better news next year. After all, as 58-year-old Hilary Doxford of Yeovil (who lives with dementia) says, it’s obvious. “A small investment, a massive return on the scale of joy”.
I like to think that Pat, Emma, Barbara and countless others, whether or not they are affected by this cruel condition, would heartily agree.