As one that entertains seniors professionally, I’m constantly witness to the powerful effects of music on my venerable audiences. Nearly all of my 2500+ concerts for seniors have demonstrated this to me. Always at the end of my program, I’m approached by well-wishers eager to tell me how a song made them feel, or to be told a story about some memory stirred.
My programs usually go by the name ‘Jimmy’s Old Time Radio Show’, my attempt to find a title representative of the broad span of material I draw from, classic songs of many styles and time periods that my audiences heard on the “old time radio” of their youth.
I perform to seniors in all levels of care ranging from the fully independent to secure dementia wards, even palliative. The average age of someone in my audience is approximately 90. I couldn’t tell you how many people over 100 I’ve met, but it’s many, and it’s always an honour.
Commonly, a senior will share memories about making music in the family home, often describing mom and dad and siblings around the living-room piano, with fiddles and guitars, joyously singing, a cherished reverie, this from a time when people made their own entertainment.
Through my experience playing concerts for the elderly, some audience reactions stand out. To highlight just a couple, I often recount how a man by the nick-name of ‘Curley’ illuminated the importance of music for seniors to me when I was a novice entertainer. Years ago…he’s long gone now…I encountered Curley as a slumped figure in a wheelchair, the staff saying, “Don’t worry, he’s unresponsive.”
But as I played on, a transformation took place. Curley raised his head and opened his eyes. Then he began tapping to the rhythm on his tissue box. Then he began to sing. It was amazing. Staff stopped their work and took notice, talking among themselves about what they were witnessing as they gathered in the doorway of the small activity room where Curley and I were.
As a couple years of singing for him progressed, he even taught me a song that he hummed for me each visit, but I didn’t know what it was until one fateful day when I was able to learn from his family, it was the 1930s classic, “When I Grow Too Old To Dream”. I learned it and sang it with him each subsequent visit, usually more than once, even at Christmas time, the experience powerful and heart-rendering. Then one day, he was no longer in my audience, but I have carried the lesson he taught me ever since.
Then recently, thousands of concerts later, a woman openly wept as I sang ‘Unchained Melody’, bawling “Thank You!” as I finished the song, she was so moved. We laughed together when I told her my next song was called, ‘Smile’. “It better be!”, she quipped. The Activity Aide witnessing this musical miracle laughed too with her arm around the woman.
These are just two examples from hundreds I could draw from of how music programs are holistically vital to those living in retirement or long-term care. This is why I advocate for “more music for more seniors” at every opportunity.
There are no sadder words than to be told by the recreation manager in a facility that, “We don’t have the budget” for music. It’s not common, but it happens. Every facility is unique. From varying levels of care to different populations, from public to private homes, to capital needs and operating budgets, a wide-array of factors determine the calibre and frequency of entertainment a place can afford.
Volunteers are the grease to recreation departments, but professional entertainers bring something more, especially those that specialize in concerts for seniors.
The profound effects of music on persons dealing with dementia is increasingly publicised, from iPod programs to Music Therapists’ restorative work. With the ratio of seniors in the population increasing, this aspect of elder-care is increasingly in focus.
As one that has been connected to the industry for years in a variety of capacities, I champion the cause for more music. It’s why I write these words.
To those that sang along even when they couldn’t speak, I’m compelled to speak on their behalf. Music is deeply-ingrained, the melodies they sing are coming from their soul. There is no monetary value that can be placed on that.