We hear powerful stories in 'To Whom I May Concern'
“Dear Sara, you came into my life at just the right time” starts the letter Phil Hazell shares to a full audience in The Neilson at Pier 2/3. “Your support and having you with me on this journey, means that I can retain my independence.
“When we go out, I am now able to be sociable. I am willing to ask people for help and have no hang up whatsoever about my dementia.”
Phil, who was diagnosed with young onset Alzheimer’s at age 55, proceeds to tell his story of living with dementia, and how Sara - who, in a beautiful twist in the story, turns out to be his beloved assistance dog - helps him so much every day.
To Whom I May Concern, a collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Group Homes Australia, UNSW and Dementia Australia, took place at Pier 2/3 on 27 July, shedding a light on the daily experiences of people living with dementia, through their own words. Dementia advocates and people living with dementia were invited to share their experiences through reading letters, accompanied by live music.
“I know, you think I’ve made a mistake. You think I meant to write ‘To Whom it May Concern,’” says participant Susan Hamilton. “But it’s not a mistake. This letter is not about an “it”, a nameless, faceless object. This letter is about an “I” and that is me. I’m writing to let you know what it’s like to be me these days.” Susan was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment in 2019.
Susan and Phil are joined by fellow participants Gwenda Darling, Dennis Frost, Nell Hawe, Bobby Redman and Val Schache on The Neilson stage.
In today’s event, which is the first instalment of To Whom I May Concern in Australia, there is as much laughter as there are moments of sadness; self-deprecation replaces self-despair. These are real stories, from real people, and they are leading a conversation that will spread out through everyone who hears their letters read out.
The event takes place on a late July afternoon at the ACO’s Pier 2/3 home, on the water at Walsh Bay in Sydney. ACO Musicians Aiko (violin), Maja (violin), Julian (cello), are joined by ACO Emerging Artist alumna Beth Condon and pianist and composer Cyrus Meurant to perform chamber works by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Meurant himself.
The sublime musical interludes offer an opportunity to reflect on the stories participants tell, no doubt bringing deep personal reflections to the surface for listeners both on the stage as well as in the audience.
“Be aware not to discriminate, be inclusive and be especially kind to all, and do everything to slow or prevent the onset of dementia for your own sake,” Val Schache, from Empire Vale in New South Wales says. Val is 70 years old and was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 63.
Her fellow participant Nell, who was diagnosed with younger onset Alzheimer's disease in 2020, agrees. “Always be kind,” she warns us. “Because dementia is not.”
Kindness flows through To Whom I May Concern, and at the end of the musicians’ final performance and the participants’ final words, they all come together at the front of the stage to take in a standing ovation – musicians holding hands with participants, and tears of relief, of joy, of love, of hope, of anguish, all mixing together in a profound and collective feeling of empathy.
To Whom I May Concern was developed by Dr Maureen Matthews in the USA. This collaboration between the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Group Homes Australia, UNSW and Dementia Australia was the first time the program has been delivered in Australia. Sign up to our eNews to stay up to date with similar events in the future.
Photos: Maria Boyadgis