Saturday, 2 April 2016

Surround sound

It’s been almost a year since I first put together a playlist of Mum’s music. Trawling iTunes for the greatest hits of the 1940s and 50s, Mum and I happily rediscovered the songs of her youth - Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Vera Lynn and the rest.

Once the compilation was burnt to a CD, I played it for Mum, wherever I could - in the car, on the stereo at home and more recently in her rest home room, through an 80’s style ghettoblaster. Mum seemed to like the ‘stereogram’ but despite my best efforts, she was completely unable to work it. Plus it occupied valuable space, on the tallboy, in her tiny room.

After a few weeks Mum confided that she wanted ‘that thing’ gone. I took it away.

Then I stumbled upon Playlist for Life - - a UK-based organisation that “works to bring the benefits of personally meaningful music in dementia care to as many people as possible.” According to them, the best way by far, for people with dementia to experience music, is through headphones connected to an iPod.

I immediately bought a pair of over-the-ear headphones. Buying a cheap version of an iPod was another matter altogether. The thing is, no-one makes them anymore. Almost everyone keeps their music on their phone. Which has to mean people are throwing iPods out.

Happily, a little while ago, a discarded iPod found its way to me.

My daughter and I set to work, finding as many songs as we could from Mum’s early years. We copied them to the iPod. Last Saturday I packed the iPod and headphones in a gift box and set off for Mum’s rest home.

This is how it went:

I carefully position the headphones on Mum’s head and we scroll through the list of artists. “Chopin,” says Mum. “I’d really like Chopin.” The effect is immediate and extraordinary - the look of amazement as the sound hits then surrounds her. The delighted moment of recognition as the waltz begins. Then three minutes of total mental and physical absorption.

First it’s her fingers - Mum’s ‘playing’ the piece just as she remembers playing it herself, on the piano, many years ago. Then the orchestra comes in - now Mum’s conducting, then she’s back to playing. Next thing she’s on her feet, crying and swaying from side to side.

“Can you hear it?” shouts Mum. I shake my head. Then I hold her to keep her from falling and we dance a little, together. Mum’s laughing and crying - both.

“It’s making me very emotional,” she shouts. “So strange, that I can hear it and you can’t.” The concerto ends and Mum collapses onto the bed.

We scroll through the artists list again. “Oooh, Inia Te Wiata,” says Mum. “Old, old songs. Where did you find these?”

Before I can reply the music starts and Mum’s away. They're Maori action songs and Mum’s got all the actions - clapping her hands together, slapping her knees and doing that diagonal arm cross thing. Then she begins to sing, in a thin voice, almost wailing, her eyes closed in deep concentration. At first she’s tentative, as though she’s mislaid the words somewhere and can't quite find them. She gains confidence and before long she’s found both the words and the confidence to keep up. All the time, she’s crying and singing and telling me how it’s taking her back. “Back a long, long way.”

“When did you learn those songs?” I ask. “Who taught you?” We’ve finished and we’re walking arm-in-arm along the corridor, out of the rest home.

“I have no idea, I just can’t remember, “ says Mum. “I was brought up with them. So long ago and it’s all gone.” She’s wobbly and teary and amazed.

“You’re still crying,” I say. “Is that good crying or the other sort?”
“Good?” says Mum, “Oooh yes, it’s good! That was extraordinary.”
Then she stops and grips my shoulders.
“When can we do that again?”


  1. That's a wonderful Saturday blog. Be great if her carers manage to carry on during the week too. After your talk at the seminar I've been encouraging ppl to take action at local body elections for user-friendly spaces and to challenge those seeking election to ensure better local govt action. Cheers M

  2. Thanks M, that's the challenge, finding a way for carers to use these tools. Great re the local body stuff - we all benefit from user-friendly design.

  3. Just came across your 'Saturdays with Mum" blog in the Family Care magazine and thank you really enjoyed reading this story. My mum suffers from moderate dementia and I have just made the difficult decision to put her into a resthome this week after caring for her in my home for the past 6 years. I have set her up with a stereo in her room as music seems to lessen her anxiety. I spend two afternoons this week with her during which time the resthome entertained the residents with singing around the piano with all the old time music.I was so delighted to see her joining in and singing out loud with the right words, as she is so shy in social situations. Really put a smile on my face after a stressful few months. Can't wait to read the rest of your blog. Sharon

    1. Lovely to hear from you Sharon. The transition to a rest home is really hard on everyone. So pleased your Mum is enjoying the music - it seems to reach parts of the brain that other things don't. You might want to give the headphones a try. They seem to multiple the effect.

  4. I love your blog- just discovered it in the Family care magazine. And I love the way you are reflecting on this slow process of dementia. I too have a mother with now advanced dementia, and I am going to do the ipod music thing- great idea.


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