Organists can get dementia just like anyone else and obviously this can impact Sunday services quite heavily. So what should you do? The answer to this, as you can imagine, is not straight forward and one solution could never fit all situations. Dementia is a degenerative disease of the brain meaning that what someone can do, remember or lead today, may not be what they can do next week. Additionally, depending on the form of dementia and how it is affecting the individual will have a bearing on how you will deal with this. Additionally, the personal support structure that the individual has will also impact the actions that you take.
Firstly, remember that how you leave someone with dementia feeling is important as they may forget what made them feel happy, sad, frustrated, angry but not how they feel. You also need to remember that playing the organ in church is probably really important to them and makes up part of their own personal identity. Balancing this with their ability is a challenge that needs to be managed carefully and reviewed as the disease progresses involving their carer (husband/wife/family member who looks after them on a day to day basis).
It is important to try and keep them involved as long as possible. To facilitate this, is there someone in your congregation who is musical and can support them by sitting with them and turning the pages of the music through the hymns? This really helps to keep them involved for as long as possible. It is possible that their musical ability may not be impacted as much as some of their other abilities. This can be seen in an excellent documentary film about Glen Campbell called ‘I’ll Be Me’. In this documentary Glen Campbell goes on his final tour with Alzheimer’s. He can’t remember the way to the toilet in his own house yet can get up on stage and still play his guitar and sing brilliantly. The only support on stage he has, other than his full band, is his daughter playing keyboard and teleprompters with the words of the songs.
See if there are other ways to support them and try and ensure that they can make it to choir practices or have a service practice so that you are confident in they’re ability. It is in this setting that you can try different support structure ideas. Maybe get them to just play a couple of the hymns with another organist doing the others if you are in a position to do this. To retain their dignity and self respect it maybe be better to phase out their playing so that they stop naturally on a high point. Maybe see if they could play for less formal events on an adhoc basis. Maybe for others with memory loss issues or for lunch club sing alongs. Ensure they have space to practice even if they aren't performing.
If your organist is a paid staff role it is important to speak to an HR advisor. Dementia is a disability and you need to ensure that you make reasonable adjustments before letting them go. It's really important to ensure that you follow correct HR process.
Unfortunately, at some point they will need to step down and you will know when that is. Try and do this in as gentle way as possible and work with their carer to break the news. How the individual takes this will depend on the individual, some may even be relieved as they were just carrying on because they didn’t want to let you down. Celebrate their service as organist, buy them flowers or a gift and don’t refer to their dementia as the reason they are stepping down as this may hurt and upset them. It is better to celebrate all the years’ service they have given and celebrate them retiring from the role.
Discuss with the carer and the organists that they can still come into the church and use the organ for their personal enjoyment. They may not still have the ability to lead in services but remember that playing the organ will make up part of who they are. To leave the offer of them being able to come in and play the organ could be a real blessing to them, even if they are not playing on Sundays.