Over the last 8 years I have made occasional visits to a rural nursing home to play old country music for the residents. What started as a hospice marketing activity has grown into something I have really come to enjoy. I have experienced an awakening in residents who usually sit sullen and lost in a fog void of memories. For those who are too feeble to participate in outings or outwardly social activities, like dominoes, there is little to stimulate the mind or tap into the joy of living. I no longer care about whether my hospice acquires patients in this home, I have settled into a regular monthly visit with my guitar and old Country songbook in hand. I do it for the folks who live there. Regardless of degree of disability, we share a communal afternoon of joy.
Personally, I am a huge fan of Traditional Country. I grew up on it. It’s fun to sing and easy to play. In a small town, a good majority of the nursing home residents have lived their lives around old Country music, too. They frequented the dancehalls and big country weddings that always included a dance with the reception. They hung out in beer joints and little country stores. They put quarters in the jukebox and let the memories flood them. If I can bring back that joy through their long term memory, then I feel like I’ve provided a brand of medicine beyond the measures of modern science.
On a typical Country music Friday, the parlor of the nursing home slowly fills with the elderly. Some push themselves there in their wheel chairs. Some hobble in with walkers. Others have to be pushed into the room by aides. Some are bright and chatty. Some sit and stare vacantly. Some make no sense as they mutter and mumble. But when I begin to sing an old song that taps into their long term memories, the transformation is pure joy for me and them.
There is the chatty fellow who dresses in his Western best to come for the music. He sings along and helps me remember lyrics that I forget. He flirts and suggests I bring him a little whisky. There is the man who seems confused, but always sings along in harmony. There is a group of ladies who arrive in their wheel chairs, but who are mentally strong. They have a wicked collective wit, and they give me songs to learn; songs from their younger days. There is the group of domino players who converse among themselves but absently sing along well after I’ve finished a song. There is the lady who suffers from Alzheimer’s. She is lost in a cloud of nothing. She can no longer respond, but there is the occasional song that sends her hands into a tremor, and I know that the long term memory is firing and she is reliving something joyful and warm in her past. Some of the folks have died over the years, and they are missed.
Often staff members join the party. We all laugh as residents share memories from their dancing days. Sometimes family members come for the afternoon; making sure that their loved one is not forgotten and it brought for the Country music party.
I’ve done this long enough to actually feel a change in the energy of the room. When I first began my regular music visit to the nursing home, many of the residents didn’t quite know what to think. There were not so many smiles or attempts to sing along. Now everyone laughs and sings. Everyone pitches in with opinions and memories if they’re capable of speaking. Sometimes the chatter makes no sense at all, but I don’t care. I just go with it. If even one word is said, that can be tied to the music and an old memory, then I take it from there so that even those who might be a little confused can feel joy. I’ve also been coming to this nursing home long enough to become a part of the long term memory. The first time or two, folks didn’t necessarily remember I’d been there the month before. Now there are people who have committed me to the joy compartment of their minds, and they come to listen and sing and to be happy.
Old Country music may be rife with sorrow and misery, but when it is shared with a group of people who commit it to memories filled with joy, it becomes the happiest music anyone can hear on a Friday afternoon.