A lost domain
A singer’s experience of dementia translated through music
Singer and songwriter Tim Wheeler found himself in uncharted territory when his father was diagnosed with dementia. Dealing with his father’s memory loss, uncharacteristic behaviour, and eventual death inspired a new solo album, Lost Domain, for the Ash frontman.
It was in 2008 that Tim’s father, George, a retired district judge, started to show the effects of memory loss. Initially it was small things like losing car keys or forgetting directions. As the disease progressed, it was forgetting family members and his own identity. Tim is open about the stigma attached to mental illness. “Anything to do with mental illness is seen as a real weakness. I remember when my dad was diagnosed my parents called me and asked me not to tell anyone else. They didn’t want people to know and I thought, when can I talk about this or who can I talk about this with? It was a hard feeling, almost worse to have to bury it. There’s a real feeling of helplessness when you can’t talk about something. I told few people at first but eventually they relaxed about it as it went on.”
Tim speaks fondly of his father, whom he describes as disciplined but someone who had mellowed in his retirement. Initially wary of his son’s choice of career, George enjoyed Ash’s early success and showed his pride by having an Ash sticker on his car window.
The memory loss was eventually compounded by mood swings and a change of character. There were unexplained moments of rage. Tim’s mother found it difficult to cope with her husband’s new behaviour. Alzheimer’s was a diagnosis that Tim and his family knew little about.
“When you hear the diagnosis of a loved one you just don’t know how it’s going to unfold or how long it’s going to be,” Tim says. “I guess I was shocked at how almost normal we could go along for a long time. He got an infection and the dementia really took hold. He never really recovered from that. He had a steep decline over six months before he died. Knowing that you’re going to lose someone piece by piece is very hard.”
George died in 2011, and in the months after Tim found solace in what he knew best, writing songs. The result was Lost Domain, a compilation of songs detailing his experience of his father’s dementia and death.
I caught up with Tim before his show at the Deaf Institute in Manchester in November 2014 and asked him a few questions about his experience of his father’s illness and how it influenced his new album.
What were the positive aspects about your father’s care?
People were amazing. So much admiration. I wrote a song called Vigil particularly about the last few days of his life and the care people gave to him and the family.
Also, about how bonding it was for the family being there for those days. The people who cared for him had to deal with his violence—really difficult and stubborn. You know they deal with it with a sense of humour all the time, just amazing. People in hospital could care for him in a way my mum couldn’t.
What kind of themes have you dealt with in the album?
There’s a song, Medicine—it’s about my dad in the dementia ward. I just tried to write down what I was seeing with what he was going through, so I wrote in the first person. I ended up writing so many verses that I had to make the song interesting, so I changed the mood of the song. I tried to make sudden shifts of mood the way his moods would shift. There was the way he would be seeing people that weren’t there, almost like talking to childhood people, people long dead; he was back in childhood times or then he was really struggling. I think when he was on the ward he was always trying to logically get his way out of there, but he didn’t have the capacity to do it anymore. He was always looking for his car keys and wallet.
You have referenced certain places and authors that have been inspirations for your work in the past. Did you have any specific inspirations for this project or was it all personal experience?
Van Morrison, he’s a very good storyteller in long form songs. So songs like Medicine were influenced by that. I’ve been working on film soundtracks so there’s two instrumentals on the record as well, and the soundtrack work helped me work on the long song Medicine, because when you work on a soundtrack you’ve only a few themes to work on, you kind of manipulate them into a lot of different styles. I was able to do that in one song with Medicine.
Do you know any other artists that have documented dementia in their work?
I know Kim Deal, who was in the band Breeders and The Pixies, has a song about her mother, who had Alzheimer’s. I think it’s called Are You Mine? because her mother would walk up to her and ask her, “Are you mine?” I thought it was really sweet. I think it’s a one-off single. I thought it was very beautiful. I also think Neil Hannon (of Divine Comedy) has written a series of songs about his father recently and he’s performed it live, but I’m not sure it’s been recorded. It’s starting to seep into films. My friend (Ilan Eshkeri) has just worked on the soundtrack for a film called Still Alice, and I worked on a film a few years ago called Ashes, where Ray Winstone was a character with Alzheimer’s. So yeah, not so much music but in films.
What do you think the relation is between music and health?
It’s interesting. I think music is a very healing thing. Any time I’ve been very down or depressed it has a very positive effect on me and it can stabilise my moods. I think it’s also very deeply linked to memory, so sometimes when speech is gone, music can still have a connection. It was nice for my dad, they had a piano on the ward. I got to sit down with him and we played. He couldn’t really play a song anymore but by holding down the sustain pedal we could make noise together, beautiful ambient music together. It can be very powerful, therapeutic and connecting too. Very powerful and underused probably.
Do you have any words of wisdom for junior doctors and medical students?
I’ve just got to say I admire you so much for the selfless giving, the hours that medical people work. I was amazed to see the care given to my father, so I will forever respect medical people.
Copyright: GivenRyan McCloskey, core medical trainee year 1
1Aintree University Hospital, Liverpool
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Lost Domain by Tim Wheeler is available on Red UK records
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2015;23:h161