Shakuhachi & Dementia: My Last Visit

The last time I visited the patients at the dementia care home was almost one year ago, just before Christmas 2018. At that time, I didn’t know it was the last time. My guide and colleague A., who accompanied me for most of my visits, was still ill, and I went visiting the patients with the nurse organising the activity, H. I didn’t write about it at that time, because nothing really special happened (although each visit is special in itself), and I thought I would couple it to my next visit, which I expected to be planned in January. But no appointment came in January, nor in February, nor in the months after. H. hoped that it could start again after the summer, but sadly, it didn’t. A. was still ill and H. couldn’t find a replacement. As I moved outside of the city at the beginning of September, it would have become more difficult for me to combine it with my work schedule (I kept for months an afternoon per week free in case I would be called to play), so I decided to let go of it and I officially stopped last month, after 5 years of playing for these patients.

December 2018, my last visit

I do remember a special moment during my last visit: a strong connection to an old lady, who was really enjoying the music, and I remember being interrupted by an aid bringing her her medicine. I continued playing though -she was sitting with other patients in the living room- thinking while playing: “Can’t this wait a few minutes more for me to finish playing? I’m not a CD!”. The old woman had difficulties to slick the medicine, but didn’t stop listening to the music, and as soon as the aid was gone, she started humming softly again. It was the first time I played for her, and her concentration on the music was so strong that she didn’t loose the connection even while forced to take her medicine.


I wrote 15 posts about this experience at the dementia care home, which was one of the reasons for me to start writing this blog. So letting go of it is not easy. But the collaboration with A. was a big part of how successful it became, it was a team work. She had a particular sensitivity to music and a strong connections with the patients. I learned a lot with her and I miss the visits with her a lot.

It was not always easy though: sometimes some patients didn’t like the sound of the shakuhachi at all, or reacted strongly, one way of another. But all the reactions were good, all the reactions were connections.
We never insisted when they didn’t like it, but we were happy to stay longer when they couldn’t get enough of it.

Playing in front of people suffering, crying, laughing, sticking their tongue out at me, yelling, and not loosing my concentration and connection to the music was the best performance lesson I could get, ever.
Hearing them hum, sing, seeing them dancing, moving in rhythm, enjoying, was the best reward I could get, ever.

At the sickbed

Another strong aspect of this experience was the non-verbal communication. A few years ago, in 2017 I think, the management of the care home changed and decided to reorient the activities to the people who could still somewhat function. The idea was to stimulate them in what still could be stimulated, especially the memory. I remember my first reaction of frustration when I arrived an afternoon when another musical activity was organised (“Holland’s Hits“, i.e. singing old Dutch songs with a singer and a keyboard). “What a bad timing” was my first reaction, “I can’t compete with this”. But soon enough, I realised that not everyone was in state to attend this activity, and those other patients were laying in bed and it felt as if they were even more left alone. So A. and I went to play for them, in their bedrooms. Those were people who didn’t have the energy anymore to move, or talk, or even open their eyes when we entered ; they wanted to say something but couldn’t find their words or couldn’t articulate, but they were still alive, breathing, listening, connecting, deserving attention and love.

A look, a sparkle in the eye, an effort to smile, an effort to articulate a sound, a soft humming, hands finding a little peace, these are the most memorable memories of these visits.

Hope it will happen again.


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