Music, Dementia and Social Media – personal musings

In recent weeks there have been two music and dementia stories which have achieved high prominence in the media and social media. The first was that of Paul Harvey, a pianist, composer and teacher, who has dementia and was filmed performing (as described by his son) an old party trick of his. This ‘trick’ involved Harvey improvising around four notes which, in this instance, his son had given to him at random. A beautiful extemporisation there followed. The clip went viral leading to widespread coverage and the involvement of the BBC Philharmonic, who released a recording of an orchestrated version. 

The second story focuses on a clip of an old lady in a wheelchair, with headphones on, listening to an excerpt of Swan Lake. Without reading the text the viewer sees someone physically responding to what they are hearing, not so remarkable. However, according to the accompanying text, we are informed that the woman is Marta C Gonzalez, who had been a prima ballerina with the New York Ballet in the 1960s. With this in mind, the significance of the woman’s movements is all the more profound. The viewer is witnessing her re-living and re-inhabiting her ballerina self. 

Although both extracts were undeniably arresting and powerful I couldn’t comprehend why my enthusiasm didn’t match the consensus demonstrated within the posts, comments and articles I read. Something didn’t ‘sit right’ for me. Previous examples of music and dementia have been promoted in mainstream media/social media before, with a slightly different twist each time. My initial reaction was frustration that people with dementia are only framed positively when these kinds of scenarios surface. They are only afforded any kind of value when demonstrating something extraordinary, the rest of the time this stigmatised cohort, are largely ignored. Of course, I understand that the news is about ‘stories’ and dementia, in and of itself, isn’t regarded as great copy; an angle is needed for it to be pushed up the agenda. However, with both these recent examples further frustration lay in that the responses seemed to be largely related to the juxtaposition of perceived capacity and incapacity along with the incongruity of expectation, challenging society’s rather limited view of older people with dementia. It seems to emphasise that people with dementia really are regarded as ‘person-with-DEMENTIA’ rather than ‘PERSON-with-dementia.’ 

So many fascinating questions arise here. Is the enthusiastic response because these examples make us feel good about ourselves in some way? A momentary de-stigmatisation of the older person with dementia? Or is it the central and universal aspect of music which is key here. We all (in the main) value and respond to music, and for a population generally not well understood their connection to music helps others to more easily comprehend them via a commonality of experience. Although for both Harvey and Gonzalez, it’s not just the music, it’s the added element of expertise, whether in the present or in the past, which draws the viewer in.

Concerned that an overt cynicism was the cause of my personal disquiet I spoke to a friend, who uncharacteristically had posted about Paul Harvey on his timeline when the story peaked.  I asked him what had moved him to share the post. He responded that from an altruistic perspective it was about hope, hope that meant that people with dementia need not be unavoidably ‘locked-in’ to the condition, that they could periodically be freed from its confines via the medium of music. A considerably more optimistic perspective than my own. However, interestingly he also added that there was an element of self-regard in his interest, in that he hoped that, should his mental capacity fade in old age, he too could achieve similar liberation through music.

I’m not sure these musings have given me any more clarity of thought and I’m happy to accept that my own perspective is overly sceptical. That said, as part of a move to try to reduce the stigma and stereotypes that surround dementia it’s healthy to question our responses to these kinds of stories and not to just imbibe them purely at a superficial level.