Music had always been important to Sam’s dad Paul, who was diagnosed with dementia at age 62.
As Sam researched more about dementia, he discovered that music played an important role in bringing other people living with the condition back to themselves.
So, with the help of close family, Sam decided to make a playlist for his dad.
Here, in his own words, Sam shares the story of his dad’s diagnosis and how music has helped bring some comfort.
My experience with dementia
When we were first told dad was undergoing cognitive assessments for suspected dementia it was a shock, he was not long into his 60s. Initially we could reassure ourselves that it would be a long road; that this wasn’t yet absolute. The wiring was starting to get faulty but he was still very much functioning as the same person. We’d have time to plan, adjust and savour. The way he and my step-mum spoke about tackling it was admirable and reassuring. But we knew the concern for them both would only ever intensify from now on.
I started to notice the indicators, things fraying at the edges. He began to struggle with texting, processing, and relaying the right information. He was declining noticeably so I just ensured conversations were centred around things I could ask of him. He’d never been short of advice or an opinion on current things but him instigating this conversation was starting to become an issue.
Me and my brother don’t live that near to Dad and have not been the primary source of support throughout his illness, that’s been my step-mum. She has taken on the emotional burden and care with resilience and love.
When visiting we did stuff that would stimulate familiarity and occupy Dad. Like going through photo albums, visiting the zoo, playing mini-golf or watching the local rugby team (a sport he played to a good level).
How we used music to help
I’d read up a little on how fluctuating the symptoms and timeframes could be for each person diagnosed with dementia/Alzheimer’s. The ‘bookcase analogy’ also showed me how the illness eventually forces the mind to lose much of what it’s acquired and relied on in life. It’s earliest or most established memories, connections and behaviours lasting longest. The bottom shelf. In a lot of people’s stories I’d come across, music seemed to be a common theme in helping bring a sense of recollection and ease.
Whether he was running us to football, school or friends’ houses Dad’s car stereo system would be playing. Usually blues, soul and classic rock. Nearly always featuring his favourites; Steely Dan. In the very early days of YouTube he’d scroll their live performances and interviews. He loved Top of the Pops growing up, got to see Elton John live in 2017 and each Friday Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would soundtrack evenings with his wife Jane.
If I’m honest I wish I’d had this idea earlier, so I could gauge more of Dad’s feedback from these segments. However when I first played it with him during a sunny afternoon in his garden he produced a knowing expression instantly. The songs themselves triggered recognition and he was able to hum, tap and even sing along to them all. Producing lyrics of words beyond him in regular conversation. It was uplifting to see but not without a tinge of sadness. Dad was visibly emotional, it must have been difficult processing the comfort of a familiar song with the memories of pre-diagnosis times that it stirred.
Music can provide some comfort
Knowing the idea behind the playlist could continue to be helpful for him and a source of remembrance for us is something to hold onto. As one of dad’s default sayings would usually go… ‘that’s all we can do now’.