Wren – not her real name – has been at one of my daycare groups for a while. She was introduced to me as an artist – ‘a rather wonderful artist’ – who loved music. Not that I could tell what sort of music – except for some clapping in the warm-ups, she wouldn’t sing along, instead she sat hunched and sad, staring ahead of her. Then, at a Christmas party, I got chatting to a couple from my part of town. They lived in a wing of the manor house, they said – with the curved-walled living room overlooking the lock, with views of the Thames and a lovely walled garden. I had spotted that house many times on my riverside walks and wondered who had the luck to live there. ‘Well’, the woman in the couple said, they had bought that place with her mother when she was diagnosed with dementia and they knew they would be looking after her. She could sit in that curved window space and enjoy the views. She had been an artist and her sight was still acute – taking enormous pleasure from watching the river. It was as I talked about my work singing with people with dementia that I realised who the mother was.
At that party, Wren’s daughter explained to me how difficult things were becoming, how she had been up all night with her mum whose distress and disorientation were becoming worse and worse. We talked about Care homes (I now regard myself as a bit of a connoisseur – I must have sung in half the ones available) and the agony of handing over her mother to an unknown institution, the humiliation, the exhaustion. Then the daughter left – hopefully, to get some sleep – and I got to work playing the piano for the party carolling.
Yesterday, I arrived at Wren’s daycare centre and there she was, with her gaze more vacant than ever. I set to work engaging the group, which wasn’t easy – a couple of men kept on getting up and leaving, one of them putting on his coat and trying to get out of the door. The regular staff didn’t get a chance of joining in with the singing because of all the bother keeping people in the room. Wren must have picked up the atmosphere, and at one point she rose to her feet and wobbled across the space. I was just getting out my chords for ‘Che Sara Sara’ – one of the 3-time standards I use to try and calm people down. It’s three-part simplicity, from girlhood to sweetheart to parent, always charms me, despite my better judgement telling me it is terrible schmalz, and Doris Day an embarrassingly outdated icon. As I began to sing, one of the carers led Wren back into the circle by both hands, and started to swing her gently to the beat. Wren’s body was supple and light, no longer the melancholy presence I was used to.
‘Che sara sara, whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, Che sara sara…’
As I sang, I tried to push away my feelings – images of Wren’s exhausted daughter, her beautiful house….and my tears flowed.