Sometimes you come across something which really raises your spirits. Today, I was lucky enough to have one of those experiences. I drive down to Watford to sit on a “Singing for the Brain” session, organised by The Alzheimer’s Society and run by a friend and colleague, Jill. She knew of my interest in dementia and invited me along to one of the several weekly get-togethers she organises in Hertfordshire.
Singing for the Brain works on the principle of the enduring power of music to connect. I’ve written before on this blog about how Mum often responds more to the sung rather than the spoken word. As our conversation grows ever more halting, I’m keen to use Mum’s love of music as a means of making meaningful contact.
Today’s session was an utterly joyous occasion. Singing for the Brain is an event for all living with dementia, those challenged by the disease and their carers alike. After a cuppa, a chat and introductions, we sang for an hour. Watching faces which looked rather pained at the start visibly relax was a joy to behold. I sat next to a lovely lady who told me before each song that she didn’t know it, and then proceeded to sing without inhibition.
“I think we did that alright,” she confided me after one of the songs, and it struck me that we were sitting there as equals. So much thought about living with dementia can be about what’s been lost if we’re not careful, and here was an experience she and I could share as equals.
Singing for the Brain isn’t just about singing words written on a printed sheet, though. Jill challenged us to sing rounds and to even try a bit of harmony. I have to admit that I’d felt a little self-conscious at the start but if my experience of letting go, singing louder with every song, is anything to go by then the benefits for all must be huge.
The songs change every week, often with a theme. Today’s was what might be called “roots music”, ranging from Three Little Fishes (complete with Frankie Howerd impersonation from Malcolm) to songs from Fiddler on the Roof and Pete Seeger. We finished with a group favourite – Why, Because I Love You, which I remember as a rather saccharin seventies single from Donny Osmond. Today, the words seemed so appropriate: “I’ll Never Let You Go//Why, Because I Love You.” However, difficult life with dementia gets, it’s so important to never let go if we can avoid it. Today proved for me that when nearly all else is lost, music can still cut through.
Later, on my journey back, I chanced on a podcast I’d downloaded of a BBC radio 4 programme called Soul Music. This edition focussed on Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and featured Singing for the Brain. Three groups in Hampshire had taken part in a BBC celebration of Handel’s masterpiece. You can see the results on You Tube – just type in Singing for the Brain – and also listen to the edition of Soul Music online. I recommend both.
But, back to this morning’s session. As we cleared up, I chatted to a gentleman who cares for his wife of 57 years. He talked of how much they both love Singing for the Brain, how important it is to both of them. He described their daily routine which includes an hour listening to and singing along with a recording of a male voice or church choir every evening before bed. It provides comfort to his wife and, as a result, to him as well. He was so cheerful and positive, a real inspiration. I have such admiration for those who live with dementia as carers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re unsung heroes, as are the volunteers who help with Singing for the Brain. I drove away with the strains of the closing song, “Until We Meet Again, Let’s Keep the Music in our Hearts” in my ears. Amen to that.