Judy Darley tells us about her father’s devastating memory loss, and the ways in which music helped ease the pain

The first ever National Memory Day is on Thursday 18 May 2017, flagging up the power of creativity for people affected by memory loss.

As more and more of us are set to see our parents and partners diminished through these illnesses, volunteer-run services such as Memory Cafés are proving increasingly crucial. They provide a chance to connect with others struggling with similar circumstances, as well as bringing moments of happiness not only to those afflicted but also to their families. Poetry, music and arts activities all play a role.

When my father, Philip, was diagnosed with semantic dementia, he told us about it with a note of relief in his voice. The deterioration would be slow, he assured us. His vocabulary and understanding of words would decrease, but over a matter of decades.

Then a few years went by and his confusion seemed broader, his mental state increasingly fogged. Still sharp enough to know something wasn’t right, he asked his doctor about Alzheimer’s Disease. The sadness in his voice as he admitted that his suspicions had been proven correct was hard to bear.

MemoryJudy with her father Philip

Within 12 months, my mum, sister and I had begun to lose him, or at least who we were to him. In a brutally short period he’d forgotten he ever had daughters or a wife at all. The house he and my mum had lived for 40 years in was the only constant – we’d become visiting strangers.

One day he asked me if he used to work with my dad. Something about me was familiar, but he wasn’t sure why.

Then he began to ask if he could go to go home. He wanted to know which bus to catch, seeming faintly alarmed that he didn’t know. I’m fairly convinced that what he wanted to reach was the period when things still made sense, rather than a physical place.

Next, he lost his sense of time. As day turned to night, he grew convinced he had a business meeting to get to, and that he was going to be late.

Sleepless, he roamed the house, growing increasingly determined. He removed panes of glass from windows, and tried to break down doors.

One morning he was gone. After a frantic hour, my mum found him lying in the garden close to a wall that led to a 20-foot drop. It transpired he’d climbed out of the ground floor window of the utility room, clambering over the washing machine to escape. The echoed refrain was how much worse it might have been.

Since January my father has lived at Osbourne Court, a care home just outside of Bristol. At last he’s safe, even if he is surrounded by people enduring some of the cruellest ailments of old age.

Some days and nights he paces the corridors, trying to reach somewhere he can’t articulate. On other occasions he sits dozing or having fragmented conversation with other residents who stray near. When I kiss his cheek, he thanks me politely, manners at a premium as always.

There are plans to enrich Dad’s life as we enter this new stage. It’s difficult to know what he will connect with, but classical music transcends memory and language. When he hears it playing on Radio 3, he’s moved to tears.

It gave me an idea. My dad was once a member of City of Bristol Choir. It gave him a huge amount of pleasure, until the day he realised he could no longer follow the music to sing. Even after that, he’d urge us to come to their concerts, and listen with a smile on him face.

It’s no longer possible to take my dad to concerts, but it is possible to bring concerts to my dad. I contacted Elizabeth Cunningham at the choir and Cheryl Wallace, the manager at Osbourne Court care home, and together we devised a plan.

On Friday 12 May, just under a week before the inaugural National Memory Day, twelve members of City of Bristol Choir arrived at Osbourne Court in Stoke Gifford.

The concert was beautiful – a resounding success. Alto, soprano, tenor and bass voices wound through the air, drawing our emotions after them. Classical choices included the spine-tingling Locus Iste by Anton Bruckner. Residents joined in with renditions of familiar songs such as Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love With You. Dad may not have joined in, and his eyes may have been closed some of the time, but occasionally his hands moved to the music. Even if he wasn’t fully awake, the dreams he was having must have been filled with song, and at this point in his illness, that’s a small triumph.

Dementia is a difficult aspect of old age that many of us will face, either firsthand or through our loved ones. Memory Cafés can alleviate the distress early on, while groups such as City of Bristol Choir who bring their talents to care homes like Osbourne Court offer a chance to feel our spirits soar even in the most challenging chapters of life.

To find out more about City of Bristol Choir, visit cityofbristolchoir.org.uk; to learn more about dementia visit alzheimers.org.uk

Featured image: City of Bristol Choir in 2006 © Judy Darley

About the author: Judy Darley is a fiction writer, poet and journalist whose work appears in magazines, anthologies and in her short story collection Remember Me To The Bees. She’s read her stories on BBC radio, in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church. Judy blogs about art and creativity at SkyLightRain.com.