All Together Now

We have a special bonus for you today. Since we’re talking about singing and dementia, Edwin (centre in the picture below) has given me permission to include a couple of his recordings. Moomin is a beautifully-crafted song that captures the confusion of his mother, who has Alzheimers, and the uncertainty, fear, and sense of loss that he feels. Cottonwool is … completely different – and one of my favourites!

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Performers at Songs Of Our Lives
Songs Of Our Lives - not just a dementia singing session

Dementia – that was the inspiration for ‘Songs Of Our Lives’.

Everyone’s always talking about the success of dementia singing sessions. And I’ve seen it myself with Lena. When she’s speaking now, she often struggles to find a word and, frustrated with the challenge, just gives up with the sentence. But start her off on a favourite song and the words all just magically fall into place.  No problem.

So the idea was to put on Songs Of Our Lives, a musical event where every song would stir a memory and trigger an audience response – to get them singing, clapping, maybe even dancing along. To release inhibitions, bring down the barriers, and roll the years back.  

We started with a list of around 60 songs: Hey Jude, Delilah, Summertime, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Yellow Submarine, No Woman No Cry, Proud Mary, Valerie, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Killing Me Softly, I’m A Believer … The test for inclusion? If we just mentioned the name of the song in a room full of people, would someone spontaneously burst into song?

But I didn’t want it just to be a dementia singing session. What I’ve learnt from Lena is that she doesn’t much enjoy going to events with a ‘dementia’ label. She doesn’t want to be treated as a special case, to be condescended to. She wants to feel ‘normal’ – to experience life just as it was before Alzheimers hitched a ride with us. So if it was going to be billed as an evening of musical entertainment, it had to be genuine entertainment. And that guided our choice of performer, of venue, even of the audience we invited.

I knew I could get the evening going with a few cheesy singalong songs. But I’m no professional. To turn a good evening into a great one, we needed musicians with a wow factor, people who could set an audience on fire. They’d need to be willing to perform for publicity, not money – because this was a launch event, I wanted it to be free. And they’d probably have to change their repertoire to fall in with our aims.

Not easy, but I knew just the people. Edwin and Annelie are two of the strongest performers on Manchester’s thriving pub/club circuit. The fact that they’re also our kids meant they weren’t going to say no.

The venue? Well, a few weeks earlier I’d met Emma Smith of Social adVentures, who operate out of The Angel Centre, in Salford but within touching distance of Manchester’s city centre. Set up to inspire local people to lead happier and healthier lives, Social adVentures partners with organisations that promote physical, mental and social well-being – which was exactly what I had in mind. I told Emma about my plans to set up dementia fitness classes. Do it here, she said. ‘Songs Of Our Lives’? Perfect for our Creation Cafe. How about July 25? It was on!

What I didn’t realise then was what else the Angel Centre would give us. Running the Cafe was Eileen Wilson. A singer, Emma told me … but that didn’t quite prepare me for out meet-up a couple of days before the event. I took a guitar over to see if we could work out a song or two together.

– What do you know?

– Summertime?

– OK. Let’s give it a try. How’s this for a key?

30 seconds later and I realised I was playing with one of the best jazz/blues singers I’ve ever heard. A complete natural, pitch perfect, fluid, a great improviser, thrilling as she got into her stride and belted out the lines. What a find! 

Something else. I’d been worried about audience size. We needed enough people to make a noise, to drive away those inhibitions. Largely thanks to Social adVentures’ great connections in the community, around 30 people turned up. Better still, the audience mix was exactly what I wanted: some with dementia, certainly, but enough who didn’t to capture that normal Saturday-night-out feeling I was aiming for. Everyone was included. We were all in it together – singers and audience – having fun. The pictures tell the story.

Two hours of songs and the performers were finished. But the audience wasn’t. Someone at the back struck up with ‘Danny Boy’. The table joined in, and the song rippled around the room.

Everyone loved the evening.

– It reminds me of the time I spent down in London in the 60s …

– I didn’t want you to stop …

– It was lovely having an evening like this for people like us. We don’t get to go out much like we used to …

It’s been over three years since that evening, and much has changed. Emma and Eileen have moved on from the Angel Centre, Annelie’s in Australia, and Lena wouldn’t know the words in the songs now. But she’d still love an event like this. I don’t think we ever stop enjoying good times.

Was this a meaningful and purposeful activity? Not especially, although it could have been if some of those with dementia had helped to organise the evening – perhaps drawing up the song-list, or even planning it as a fund-raiser. But what made the evening special was the sense of community, people all having a great time together whether they arrived with dementia or without it.

That’s the feeling we want to recreate at The Bine.

And now the songs I promised -

OK, so Edwin’s my son, and in Moomin he’s writing about Lena, my wife – so of course I love the song. But he doesn’t perform this in public – I think he feels it’s too personal – and it deserves an audience. It’s easy to forget the anguish dementia causes to the children of those affected. You’ll feel it here.

Ed’s second song, Cottonwool, changes the mood. I’m not at all sure that this was what he intended when he wrote the song, but somehow it always puts a smile on my face. I can’t wait for the follow-up … maybe 50 Ways To Use Your Kleenex?

If you’d like to hear more, you’ll find Edwin on iTunes and Spotify. My favourite? Purge – the EP.

DON’T KEEP THE STORY / SONGS To YOURSELF

FIND OUT hOW WE PLAN TO TRANSFORM DEMENTIA CARE

We have an army of dementia carers all fighting their battles alone. That's no way to win a war.

Alan Miles

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