Beyond Borders

It has been some time since my last visit to the old people with dementia, which was on the 17th of October. I didn’t think it would take me so long to write a post about this particular day. In the morning, I had just posted my previous post about Practicing Kokū and was planning to write this one quite rapidly afterwards. But life had other plans.

When I arrived in the dementia care house this day, there was a musical animation going on, “Holland’s hits”. Yeah. A singer with keyboard and loudspeakers was entertaining a large group of patients. “What a timing” was my first reaction, “I could have better come another day.” A. and the nurses were very excited to have such a show in the hospital.
A few weeks earlier, I attended a meeting (organised by the dementia care house) about the effects of music on patients with dementia. I was expecting at least a talk from a professional music therapist and other scientific insights, but it was actually about asking the family to bring the patient’s old favorite music and try to stimulate his/her memory while listening to it. It was all about stimulating and entertaining them, about patients at the beginning of their sickness. And then? Later? When they are laying in bed, not able to articulate a word anymore, when they reach the end of their life, don’t they deserve any attention anymore? That was apparently not relevant. I was even a bit shocked when the main speaker of the meeting said: “don’t put them to sleep!”. As if it was the worst thing that could happen. Well, for me, it happens very often that when I play, the patients who are restless, in pain or anxious, finally relax and find some peace, and I don’t think it’s wrong.
“Holland’s Hits” was indeed the perfect illustration of entertaining them, and I felt a bit out of context with my quiet and unknown Japanese music. The first bedrooms were empty. But eventually,  we arrived in a quiet room where people who were too tired or too far in their illness to bear excitement were gathered. I realised that “Holland’s hits” was not for everyone, of course, and was happy to be there for them, the ones who needed quietness. I played first for a very old woman who was sitting in a big special armchair (first time I was seeing her out of her bed actually). She doesn’t speak much but her bright blue eyes have a lively and sparkling look. If she doesn’t want or like something, she can still express it very clearly. During the first song, she fell in such a deep sleep that she didn’t wake up when I finished playing. I played a couple of tunes, her neighbour started to snore happily, none of them reacted anymore. Totally wrong according to the music specialist of the meeting. But so heart warming to see them rest quietly.


Sometimes I tend to forget I’m not the only non-Dutch person here. “Holland’s hits” doesn’t ring any bell for me (except when they reuse French songs like “La Montagne” by Jean Ferrat which became “Het Dorp” by Wim Sonneveld). The foreigners patients were also not attending the show. The Armenian woman looked very happy to see us, if I measure her happiness with how much she spoke Russian to me while I was playing. We had a nice dialogue Japanese music – Russian words. She even gave me an applause at the end. We have no idea what she said to us during the time of our visit, but she had a big smile on her face and we somehow manage to communicate.
Then we went to the African woman we already visited several times. We could hear her scream from the corridor. “Let’s give it a try and see if she can calm down a little with your music” said A. When we entered, it looked like she was in a heated discussion with invisible people. I played a couple of tunes, but it was as if she even didn’t hear me. She is blind so she couldn’t see us, but I was even wondering if she had heard we were there. I said to A. “Is she hearing us?”  A. answered that she was blind but not deaf, and asked her very loud whether she heard the music I just played. But she got no answer. She repeated the question, saying my name, Hélène, and making the comparison with the woman’s name, Bernadette, which is also a French name. Hearing her name, she finally turned her head toward us, and I said “Bonjour Bernadette”, in French. And to my big surprise, she answered me in French! It was not the first time I spoke a few words of French to her, but she never answered before, so I wasn’t even sure she could speak French (not all Africa was colonised by the French people ;-). So I said some more words in French, and suddenly she asked: “Ils sont où les Français ?” (where are the French people?). And from this moment, she stopped shouting at invisible interlocutors and spoke exclusively French. I played some more music, talk about it, asked her a few questions, she mentioned a school, listened to my music, talked to me, and calmed down. A. was sitting on the bed, not really following our “discussion”, but enjoying the transformation in Bernadette’s behaviour. The French language brought her back to another part of her memory, apparently more enjoyable. When we left the room, she was quiet, her demons were sent away for a while and she could enjoy some rest. Even if it was just for a short time, we were both very happy to have given her a break, before the demons in her head would come back again and start to fight with her.

Beyond borders

I was very happy of my modest contribution of the day. However, when I arrived back home, I had a message that my ex-mother-in-law (my daughter’s grandma) had passed away. She was 91, in an elderly people’s house for some years and since this summer, in a hospital. Each time I was playing here for the elderly people, I was thinking of her, wishing my breath would be strong enough so that she could hear me, one thousand kilometers further away. She died in her sleep while I was playing at the dementia care house.
As I couldn’t attend the funeral, I recorded a piece for the ceremony, and I chose the one I was playing for the old woman who fell in such a deep sleep she didn’t hear me leave. I didn’t know what this song was about, so I ask a Japanese friend. It turned out to be an Elegy for deceased people, a Requiem. What a coincidence.
On the day of her funerals, I was giving a shakuhachi workshop. We dedicated our honkyoku practice to her memory. And when we played Kokū (Empty Sky) on the Sunday for a group of meditators, I wished that this music, inspired by the monk Fuke’s death, could reach her and give her peace, wherever she is now.


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