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My Demented Dad: the power of music

One of the first things I did when I came back to Glasgow was to join a choir. And it was easily done – there are now more choirs in Britain than fish and chip shops!

I’ve been part of Shona Brown’s Soundroutes choir which meets in a room above a bar in George Square – I still can’t get over being able to drive there in about 10 minutes and always find a parking space. And that it’s FREE to park after 6pm. (Note to Sassenachs: George Square is the Glasgow equivalent of Trafalgar Square.)

We sing all sorts of music from Stevie Wonder to Kris Drever, Irving Berlin to Blur. There's no requirement to be able to read music and no auditioning. You just turn up. However bad a day any of us has had, however dreary the weather, however long our faces when we arrive, we always leave the session lighter, brighter and with a smile on our faces.

Singing uses both sides of the brain so you can’t be hi-jacked by any rogue thoughts while you’re doing it. Music as therapy, or as a tool for communicating with people who are mentally impaired, is well known. Music is considered both an art and a science with Alzheimer’s and dementia two of the diseases most commonly treated with music therapies.  Singing with other people brings another layer of pleasure, not often enjoyed these days except at a football or rugby match, or if you are one of the few remaining church goers. Unless you join a choir.

I grew up in a house full of music;  the sound of Dad playing the piano – often when he was required elsewhere but couldn’t quite tear himself away, was part of our daily lives.  He sometimes rehearsed his jazz quartet in our front room.  And for months he spent every evening, when he wasn’t playing music, writing a book about it. The giant, handwritten manuscript for ‘How to Play Jazz’ is still in the house. I recently found an audio cassette of a band practise with my brother sitting in on drums. In the middle of a number, my sister comes into the room and we hear her introduce everyone to her newly acquired puppy, followed by Mum asking, rather politely, if the band would mind playing one of her favourites?

I also remember the unexpected joy of going to see the Abba tribute band Bjorn Again. It was a birthday gift for a friend’s daughter and as we snuck into the Shepherd’s Bush Empire I was hoping I wouldn’t be spotted by anyone I knew, and Fran was doubtless wishing her friends could be there, rather than someone more than twice her age. About three songs in I realised that I knew all the words.  And that the band expected us to do all the work.  So I got over my embarrassment and joined in with the rest of the audience. The group just introduced the numbers, sang some harmonies, did some cheesy dance moves and generally looked glamorous.  It was a really great night and had nothing to do with Abba – it could have been the Bootleg Beatles, or the Counterfeit Stones or anyone else with a catalogue of songs that you know by heart and where singing along isn’t just tolerated it is actually a requirement.

Dad’s mood is easily affected by music.  The raucous Big Band CDs can raise his spirits, while certain female singers act as a sedative. He can still be irritated by Frank Sinatra and is not much impressed by the new boys on the block – the likes of Michael Buble and Jamie Cullum fall on deaf ears. And maybe it’s fine to just stick with what you know and love, rather than trying to grapple with a new interpretation of a standard by someone you have no shared history with.

Perhaps that’s because particular pieces of music bring back specific memories and that’s what we all connect to – not the music but the feeling it provokes.

I know that when I get dementia I will not want to be left in a room with Classic FM - the default setting for most of the Care Homes I’ve ever visited.

I’ll draw up a list of my own Dementia Island Discs, choosing songs that bring back happy memories – so that’s a ‘no’ to any teenage-angst inducing Leonard Cohen and a big ‘yes’ to the Monkees! Some prog rock to accompany the afternoon snooze, and Earth, Wind and Fire for dancing, if only in my head.

And it’s not just about music; I’ll be drawing up a list of favourite films and television programmes - and food!

I don’t very often have the chance to be a smug vegetarian – and I well remember some of my meat-eating friends taunting me when Linda McCartney died prematurely – but I’m quietly enjoying the horsemeat scandal.  And I really laughed out loud when Alec – one of our most favourite of Dad’s Home Care helpers - told me this joke:

A man went to a fast food van and ordered a burger.

Do you want anything on that?’ asked the vendor.

'I’ll have a fiver each way’.

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