I got my degree in therapeutic recreation, which boiled down to its simplest meaning, can be described as using leisure activities to facilitate exercise and such. While in this program I saw that a great way for me to use this skill would be to work with the elderly, and later specifically found meaning in helping those folks who were now living in long term care facilities. I wanted to be there to show them that just because they were in that facility didn’t mean that they couldn’t have a fun and entertained life. I worked very hard to plan activities that engaged the residents physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. After years of facilitating these activities, I found that there was no other activity like a musical performance. In it’s best form, the music was engaging on all the levels that I was trying to hit. Residents were moving around, without being prompted, they were getting in touch with feelings from the past that may have been locked away for years, they are singing along to the songs they know, and they are being taken by the music, which has always felt spiritual to me.
When I was in college I did some volunteer performances at the local nursing homes in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I would take my little guitar, my song book, and an overall good attitude.That is where I first learned that these residents are starved for quality entertainment that takes them away from where they currently are. I once played to a room of folks who were getting into it and at some points the entire room was singing along and those that could were moving their feet, and clapping their hands. After the performance one of the staff came up and said with tears in her eyes, “Mrs. Johnson hasn’t spoken in 3 years”. She was one of the woman who was singing along to every song. Something triggered inside her, and she remembered these songs from long ago. I have seen people get out of their wheelchairs, for the first time outside of bed and the bathroom in a long time, to dance while their song is playing. I really wish I would have kept a list of all of the amazing things I have seen from behind my mic stand.
I originally got into working in nursing homes to make the residents day just a little brighter, some how. I got to do that for a long time, until “the politics” of nursing homes took over and it became apparent that making money was the driving force behind everything, and the happiness of the residents was not a close second, but somewhere farther down the list. So I feel very fortunate to have found this path that I get to spend time with residents an hour at a time, without being responsible to the particular nursing home that I am performing at. It is one of many things that brings me true happiness on a daily basis.
How Not To Do It
If you ever find yourself in a nursing home with music happening I want you to try to remember these tips, and see how the activity director is putting on the show. I have seen so many times activity directors going about their music presentations all wrong. For starters, it is best to have the performance in a dedicated space, not just the lobby, or living room in front of the nursing station. It should take place in a closed room, or if one is not available at least in the dining room, away from the general staff and general goings on of the facility. What a good show is providing to the residents is a performance, like as if they were to get a baby sitter, get dressed up and go out to see some music performed. Its not just something to fill a slot on the calendar for an hour. The activity director, or someone directly appointed by the activity director, is to be present in the room at all times. At no point should the entertainer be alone in a room full of residents. I have seen time and time again where residents fall because there is no staff around to help. The staff member, again ideally the activity director, is to be present to assist people to the rest room, or to redirect residents who are not participating well. And if there is a resident who is calling out, or grinding their teeth, or in any way hindering the other residents experience, that resident should be removed from the activity. You might say, “but that person can’t be excluded”, and you would be half right. While activity directors can not deny a resident an activity, if they are not appropriate, then a different activity is to be provided, or mayhaps the activity director could sit with that resident. As someone who has done it on both ends, it is possible for everyone to enjoy the show, some effort just needs to be put in place. The wheelchairs and chairs need to be arranged in a fashion that lets everyone leave whenever they want. A walking path needs to be left so the activity director is able to assist people out, or the nurse is able to grab someone without making a big distraction. On distractions, the activity director is also to maintain a talk free zone for the show. I find the biggest problem is staff walking through having conversations at full volume, and family members who try to talk to their loved one during the performance. Again this is a show, and no one wants to sit in a room of quiet attentive people and listen to one person have a conversation. It is very distracting and is interruptive to the activity.
Maybe I’ll write another post about more specifically how to set up a show, but yeah… there are a lot of bad ones out there. Keep your eyes pealed and help out when you can. Music is so important to the aging brain and the failing body. Keeps them young in so many ways. It is important, they are important, and thats why I do it.