It’s hard to resist singing along to the familiar notes of the Beatles’ Hey Jude, and when the quality of the piano playing has the touch of the professional about it, it’s enough to make you stop and look.
This is what has been happening quite regularly at Bruce McLaren Retirement Village as soon as special care resident George Laing gets behind the keyboard.
Cheers of ‘Bravo’ and ‘Encore’ ring out and questions quickly follow to find out where George learned to play so well.
His piano playing is so good, he often plays for his fellow residents in the special care unit. More recently word has gotten out and he’s had invitations to play for the residents at the main happy hour in the village centre.
George is actually a retired dentist, and was co-founder of Auckland’s Mighty Mouth Dental, so it was a different kind of scale that he dealt with in his day job.
But his musical talents were put to considerable use in his spare time - he played in bands and toured with a couple of country music stars during his youth and in later years he was musical director and musician for the Howick Operatic Society.
“I’ve played in bands for most of my life,” says George.
“I do like to play rock ‘n’ roll and jazz… I can play classical, and I can even handle heavy metal but I’m not really into it. Whatever’s paying the money is what I prefer!” he laughs.
He took the country music to a serious level, having laid down some tracks with Kiwi country musicians John Hore and Eddie Lowe.
“I played and toured the South Island with John Hore. All the piano and guitar playing on his early album is me.”
Yorkshire-born George first began learning to play as a six-year-old.
“Then we came to New Zealand, to Whenuapai, and I carried on taking lessons in Henderson.
“When I was 13 we moved to Changi, Singapore – this was with the Air Force – and I went to Changi Grammar School and my teacher was Miss Nugent, who was ravishingly gorgeous!” he chuckles.
He says his father strongly encouraged his talent, having wished he’d been better himself.
“Dad could only play the piano with one hand so he wanted me to play properly.
“When we were in Singapore, my dad also bought me a guitar and a book and I taught myself.”
It was also his father’s idea for George to work in the medical profession, which George did indeed follow through on, but with his own take on it!
“My father said, ‘So lad, one day you’re going to be a doctor!’ But I thought to myself doctors work 24/7 and I’m a bit lazy so what can I do? So I became a dentist!”
George built up a very successful dental business – his registration plate was A2FDR (a tooth doctor!) and says it never occurred to him to give up the dentistry and become a full-time musician.
“I miss it actually,” he says.
His involvement with the Howick Operatic Society led him to Jenny, his second wife, and the production they first worked on together couldn’t have been more auspicious.
“I became the musical director and she was the leading lady,” says George with the now customary twinkle in his eye.
“The production was called And So To Bed…. and so it was!” he laughs.
“She’s my petal, my Jennifer, and I love her to bits,” he says.
George’s favourite tracks to play are the Beatles, Elton John and even a bit of musical theatre in the form of Phantom of the Opera.
“I enjoy playing. I love the music,” he says.
But Jenny says while he plays them beautifully, he can no longer read music and relies on the small number of tunes he still has committed to memory.
Jenny realised something wasn’t quite right with George in 2018 when his nurses would mention he’d gone to the wrong surgery in the mornings.
“His memory then became worse and I noticed he would repeat the same sentences several times and that has got progressively worse over the last five years.
“We were about to embark on a six week holiday overseas and I had to know what I was dealing with,” says Jenny.
“After a visit to the neurologist and geriatrician it was confirmed by MRI that George had early onset Alzheimer’s.”
George moved into Bruce McLaren in February this year after he began wandering. While he still asks Jenny to take him home when she visits, the team confirm he has adapted well and is sociable and enjoys participating in the various outings and activities.
“Music has been his life and his constant outlet. He would often, at home, just sit and play. I am thrilled that he is playing at Bruce McLaren and bringing joy to others,” Jenny says.
Caroline Bartle, Ryman Healthcare’s Dementia Project Specialist, said keeping the brain active plays a pivotal role in maintaining optimal brain health.
“Even in the face of advanced dementia, the power of music remains stored in the procedural memory, offering a unique opportunity for engagement and enrichment.
“For someone like George, embracing those cognitive strengths and abilities serves as a powerful tool to enhance his overall well-being and quality of life.
“Through the gift of music, George not only finds joy and purpose but also enriches the lives of those around him.”
* This story is one of a series of stories to highlight International Alzheimer's Awareness month during September.