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I Started Singing at Care Homes to Help People with Dementia

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I started as a professional entertainer in 1995, doing gigs in pubs and working men’s clubs. But now, I perform for a very different audience: residents at care homes.

I can still vividly recall how it started.

The phone call was very friendly. ’Hi Dave! We saw you at that birthday party in the nightclub last night and thought you were really good… we’d love you to come and entertain the residents at our care home’.’

‘Good Lord,’ I thought. ‘Two decades in “the business” – I’ve appeared at The London Palladium, 5 Star Hotels, on telly, the lot. Was I really that bad the previous evening that these people think I’m only fit to play for old people who probably don’t know what day it is? Or are they just trying their luck?’

I was insulted to be asked, but very politely declined. To accept a gig at such a ‘venue’ was surely the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder, and I’d have to be desperate… Maybe in a few years’ time when my abilities had subsided, but not now.

It was meant to be though, because as a ‘one-off’ favour to an agent that gave me a lot of top-quality work, I played at a small independently-run home a few weeks later. I’d groaned as the date approached in my diary and hoped that there would be no posters up advertising the ‘event’, fearing that people that I knew might think that my career had hit rock bottom.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not bigging myself up here. It was the songs that did it, not my delivery of them. But to see their effect on the residents, many of whom were inanimate and lost within their lamentable mental conditions before I started the gig, was the first indicator that this circuit was where I should be, exclusively, from hereupon.

The tunes seemed to tap them on the shoulder like old familiar friends that hadn’t visited for a while, and their reactions were joyous. They roused. They became enlivened. Some were tapping their feet to the beat, others mouthing the lyrics or singing along heartily, and still others were wrestling themselves out of their armchairs to dance. The music wasn’t obstructed by their dementia – it defied it. Within two or three minutes the lounge had been transformed into a place of celebration.

We all know that music is a time machine, and I sincerely believe that in care homes the residents are transported to happier, more beautiful events and times before they were shackled by mental illness.

It’s not my place to delve into the psychology or chemistry involved in that transformation; I’m unqualified in these fields. I can only relate what I see and experience; the sheer power of recognisable tunes connecting with and invigorating elderly people all with their own difficulties. It affected me profoundly, and whereas at a corporate function I might just be background music, perhaps even a hindrance to disinterested drinkers at a distant table, here the dynamic is intimate, immediate and tremendously uplifting.

There is a growing body of research showing the huge impact that music and singing can have on people with dementia. And I feel that every care home should have singing activities in place.


Image credit: Freepik

Dave Dawson is a singer and also the co-author of ‘Dear Mr Pop Star’, a book of deliberately silly letters to 60-90s pop and rock icons about their lyrics, with genuine hilarious replies.

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