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Community Songwriting

Published on May 13th, 2014 | by Jennifer Jones

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“Have you ever met Nat King Cole?” Community Songwriting with Alzheimer Scotland

Below is a guest post from our community songwriting tutor Robert Maitland who has been working with groups from Alzheimer Scotland in both Renfrewshire and Dumfries and Galloway as part of the Digital Commonwealth Creative Voices programme. Robert reflects on his experiences on working with people with dementia and how active storytelling, singing and reminisce can improve the quality of peoples’ lives. You can hear the songs produced below – and stay tuned for a short film currently in production as we return to the memory lane club in a few weeks time.

Through the months of March and April I have had the honour of delivering the Digital Commonwealth, Creative Voices Project at Alzheimer Scotland , Dumfries and Alzheimer Scotland, Renfrew. My colleague for the first two weeks at Renfrew was Carol Laula and I’m sure I can speak for both of us when I say that the staff, were absolutely wonderful, both in the way they carried out their duties and also the enthusiastic way that they participated in all aspects of the project. The Renfrew group some weeks had 26 people in it and was considerably larger than the Dumfries group with a maximum of 10.

Each day I began with a live performance of songs that were familiar to the residents. The people needed little encouragement to join in as can be heard in the audio clip called ‘Have You Ever Met Nat King Cole’. Some danced, one resident with advanced dementia whistled along with every song. After each song we chatted about the songs and original performers and encouraged everyone to speak about their own favourite songs and singers. The stories and memories that each song sparked were amazing, ranging from the dances and dancehalls to some hilarious stories including one about meeting Nat King Cole, hence the title mentioned earlier.

As part of the final outcome a song was written and recorded for both groups. Each song demonstrates the value of the contributions and leaves a legacy that reflects their personal stories.  This‘common-weal’, is a common good approach resulting in a ‘Creative Voice’ that can be shared and that will be meaningful to everyone in their own ways.  It’s about inclusion, it’s about understanding, it’s about a sense of citizenship.

The song I wrote with Alzheimer Dumfries is called ‘Playlist For Life’.

The inspiration for the song was taken from the positive connection between music and people with dementia and how it continually sparked memories. In this case it refers directly to the story about meeting Nat King Cole.

People with dementia do not turn into “ empty shells” unless we do that to them. The difficulty with dementia is not that these people forget – but that we forget them. They can become unseen. We are in danger occasionally of thinking about them as being outside society. There are things we can do to help people with dementia retain hold of their identity – not through pills but by continuing human connection and collaboration. The people with dementia were continually conveyed back to themselves again and again when we sang to them. BBC presenter and broadcaster Sally Magnusson has started a charity, to encourage everyone with dementia to be given access to the musical playlist of their lives on a digital device. The effect really is like a miracle.

The final song below was with the Memory Lane Club in Paisley, a place that is an important source of support for its members.

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