Thursday, 8 September 2022

Positive Songs For Negative Times #76: Dementia Awareness

A workmate is doing a charity walk for an Alzheimer’s charity. Almost immediately after clicking on her JustGiving page, I heard a song that made me choke up. It’s the third song I’ve heard this year that deals with the subject, so I figured a post was in order. In days gone by, I’d have tried to find another seven similar songs to make a Top Ten, but I realised that would mean limiting the chances of you listening to these three. And they’re all really worthy of your attention… though I feel I ought to offer the caveat that those of you who are currently dealing with this situation first-hand might find these songs a little too close to home. 

I count myself extremely lucky that my own parents, both now well into their 90s, have not been afflicted with any kind of dementia. They have all kinds of other health issues to deal with (a stairlift was fitted last week, and my dad finally got a better hearing aid so I was able to have a proper conversation with him for the first time in ages) but they’re still themselves in their heads. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a parent (or worse still, a partner) to dementia, though these three songs evoke a great deal of empathy in me.

Hayes Carll is a playful, sometimes acerbic lyricist, so it’s good to hear him treat this subject with such depth and emotion. Written from the perspective of an old man with Alzheimer’s, the song was inspired by personal experiences. Hayes explains, “I was 14 years old and sitting in the passenger seat of my grandfather’s truck in Waco, TX, the town he had lived in for most of his life. He turned to me at a stoplight and asked me where we were. He looked scared. I know I was. I’ve thought a lot since then about what it must feel like to lose the thread of your own story.”

It feels so familiar as I watch you
Walk in the room
And at first, I don't recognize you
But then I damn sure recognize that perfume
And you kneel down beside me
And gently take all of my hand
I say, "Baby, I'm scared
And I'm not sure I know who I am"
Can you help me remember
Who it is that I used to be?
Can you tell me the story of my family
My hopes and my dreams?
Did I try to stand for somethin', would I always fold?
Did I do things when I was young
To be proud of when I was old?
Was I a house on fire or was I just a slow-burning ember?
Could you, please, help me remember?

Possibly the last person you’d expect to find in this post is Nigel Blackwell. It’s rare to find a Half Man Half Biscuit song that isn’t played for laughs (although Blackwell often has a serious point to make), but the penultimate track from the latest HMHB album stopped me in my tracks. The subject of a wife who can no longer care for her dementia-suffering husband on her own is treated with a great deal of respect, made all the more powerful through the use of gentle, observational humour and that special Blackwellian turn of phrase. Pathos and bathos both used to great effect.

As always, I am in debt to the Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project, who debate this song with far greater erudition than I ever could, should you wish to know more.

The days she feared are here
The easy years are gone
His ‘best before’ draws near
And warning lights are on
Effort is tiring
But then again
Just for inquiring
She’ll get a free Parker pen
The surgery leaflets
Offer advice
But there’s no preparation
For losing him twice
And now he’s washed and dressed and ready
To keep him safe she’ll face the hurt
And if she could hold that needle steady
She could sew his name into his shirt
Apart, adrift, alone
Afraid of what’s ahead
She’ll be the evil nurse
And he’ll be underfed
Conduct report
Bound to be mixed
“Lashed out during bingo”
“Said the quiz night was fixed”
Occasional sunshine
Where clarity reigns
And memories are mutual
And we’re back in the lanes
Jeanette MacDonald had Nelson Eddy
And Bobby Darin had ‘Mack the Knife’
And she had him to hold her steady
Ah, sweet mystery of life!

Finally, the song that led to this post. Originally recorded by Kathy Mattea, and written by her husband about his own parents, though I wasn’t aware of Kathy’s version when I came across the cover on the sumptuous new collection by Rumer, B Sides & Rarities Vol. 2. It’s one of those story songs that covers a great stretch of time, and its impact can only really be felt by listening to the whole story. Which I encourage you to do. However, this is the verse that caught in my head on first listen, and drove me to delve much deeper.

They'd never spent a night apart,
For sixty years, she heard him snore.
Now they're in a hospital,
In separate beds on different floors.


  1. Three powerful songs about a horrible disease Rol.
    Can I offer up another couple?
    Veronica by Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney and The Man in the Bed by Dave Alvin

    1. Veronica is a good call. Will check out the Dave Alvin.

  2. What CC said. Have you watched The Father? It's a brilliant depiction of this wretched, awful condition.

  3. As I think you know I’ve been witness to my mum’s Alzheimer’s for some time now and we are now getting to the grisly stage. If it was only the loss of memories, but sadly much, much more. An awful disease and the one I fear most for myself in the years to come. Thanks for broaching such a difficult subject in a music blog and for sharing these fine songs. I discovered Elvis Costello’s song for the first time when my mum was first diagnosed but the other songs are new to me. Again, thanks. Alyson

    1. Thanks, Alyson. Knowing a little of your circumstances, I did worry about posting these and causing upset. Your comments eased my mind. I think we all harbour fears about our own chances with this dreadful lottery.


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