She composed the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to a Christmas TV campaign about dementia and recently released an electro pop album which explores the dementia journey through music. Here musician Hannah Peel tells Unforgettable about the person who inspires her work; her grandmother Joyce who lived with dementia for 12 years.
It was Christmas day and Joyce Peel smiled happily as her family all arrived with gifts. She told everyone she loved them… then asked politely who they were. ‘Gran was absolutely lovely, but didn’t have a clue what was going on,’ recalls Hannah. ‘So at one point I said to Dad, “why don’t we sing some Christmas carols and see what happens?”’
Joyce had always loved to sing. Her husband Robert was a conductor, choral master and organist, and Joyce herself sang in all the choirs he conducted. ‘As a child, I lived in Yorkshire and my grandparents were in Northern Ireland so visiting them was always exciting. I remember singing in the choir at Christmas with them which was really special,’ says Hannah.
Robert and Joyce passed on their love of music to their grandchildren, many of whom, Hannah included, play multiple instruments. ‘Gran gave me my first violin,’ she says. ‘Then when I was about five I remember sitting down at her piano and pretending to play it, which led my parents sending me to piano lessons.’
But would Joyce’s musicianship count for anything now that she had dementia, and seemed to inhabit a world of her own? There was, it seemed, only one way to find out…
‘We started to sing traditional Christmas carols. Gran was sitting with her eyes shut – as she often did – but the moment we sang she opened them and joined in. It was like, “whoa, she’s back in the room.” It was amazing. Really, really magical.’
Their Christmas visit was transformed. After singing one song, the family went straight on to another, and another. When it was time to go, they said their goodbyes and Joyce replied, “Happy Christmas.”
‘It was the first time in three or four years that Gran showed any understanding of what day it was,’ says Hannah. ‘It was an incredible moment, because watching her deteriorate over the years had been so upsetting.’
By then Joyce had been living with dementia for many years. ‘Each time I visited her from England I saw the illness progress a little further,’ says Hannah. ‘It started with her losing things and thinking family members had taken them which was very distressing for everyone. After that, it was memory loss, not knowing how to cook anymore – and she’d been a fantastic cook. Then she had a fall and the moment she went into hospital everything got much worse. She ended up in the care home where she remained for the rest of her life.’
However, having finally found a way to connect, Hannah knew she must put what she’d learnt to good use. ‘Instead of feeling guilty and thinking, “I should have done this sooner,” I decided to use this awareness to find out how and why music might help people with dementia.’
But before she could begin, Joyce passed away. ‘The grief of losing her was awful, but in a way, it also spurred me on to do some serious research into dementia. Putting on a ‘practical’ head was a good distraction, it helped me get through it.’
With support from Dr Selina Wray, a neurologist who researches dementia on behalf of Alzheimer’s Research UK, Hannah learnt all she could about the brain and the science behind dementia. She also attended talks, events and lectures by leading researchers and professors in the field. ‘I wanted to understand what happens in the brain, all the facts and statistics. It helped to understand a little of what had been happening inside Gran’s brain, though it also made me realise how much I didn’t know.’
Hannah’s research sparked greater curiosity into the link between music, memory and dementia. ‘The auditory system is the first part of the brain to fully function from 16 weeks old and it’s thought to be the last part of the brain to be affected by dementia. Scientists think that because it’s deep down in the centre of the brain, it’s the last thing to be touched which is why the musical memory remains long after other memories have gone.’
She also watched the ground-breaking US documentary Alive Inside – a story of Music and Memory, saw the film Still Alice and was moved to tears by a theatrical performance of the award-winning play The Father by Florian Seller.
This new-found knowledge and desire to understand her gran’s dementia, led to Hannah’s new electro pop album Awake But Always Dreaming which has received a great deal of critical acclaim both musically and from dementia professionals. ‘Musically, I wanted it to feel like stepping into my gran’s world,’ she explains. ‘So it begins with an upbeat pop track then slowly degenerates into the kind of hallucinogenic world where I imagine my gran had been living for quite some time.’ One particular track, Conversations, will resonate with anyone on the dementia journey. ‘Gran and I would have the same conversation over and over again, so after one visit I wrote down everything we’d said and recorded it onto a tape machine. It became the basis of the song Conversations which is so emotional I find it very difficult to perform live.’
Hannah hopes everyone will enjoy the album but she had one particular audience in mind. ‘My biggest aim was to reach younger people, to inspire them to play music with their grandparents and to enjoy the experience – because that’s something I didn’t get a chance to do with my gran.’
Hannah was also responsible for creating the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to Santa Forgot, the poignant Christmas animated advert by Alzheimer’s Research UK which explores the idea of Santa having dementia. ‘When I first saw the animation, I thought it was incredibly touching. I wanted the music to be as simple and sincere as possible and to work with Stephen Fry’s beautiful narration. I’m very happy with the music but what’s most important is the message.’
So, has Hannah’s attitude towards dementia changed? ‘Definitely,’ she replies. ‘I feel very confident that progress is being made in terms of research and that, though it might be another 20 years before we see a major discovery, there is reason to hope.’
Meanwhile, she’s convinced that music is one of the most effective interventions on the dementia journey. ‘You may feel that your loved one is slipping away from you – as I did – but they are still there, somewhere, and music can be one of the most powerful ways of finding them and connecting with them again.’
Awake But Always Dreaming is available to download from iTunes or on CD through her website for £10.99.