Once a month I spend two hours visiting residents at the Groton Community Health Care facility. The first hour is a group sing-along in the activities room. After that, I make individual visits to those who are confined to their rooms, for whatever reason.
It’s inspiring to see the many ways that the sound of harp and voice dissolves some of the isolation inherent in living in a skilled nursing facility. A familiar song creates moments of connection, an entryway out of guarded loneliness and into a place of welcoming and generous hospitality.
I enjoy watching just how the connections happen. Many residents love to sing along but don’t remember so well…until the music starts to play. Then, supported by my voice, the harp, and each other, the words come back. They look around, smile at me, and even better, they smile at one other, as if delighted that their memories have stored the lyrics. Simple songs – This Little Light of Mine, Red River Valley, This Land is Your Land – bring warm, friendly energy into the room.
I’ve seen residents bond in ways they don’t seem to when just sitting around the nurses’ station. A woman I’ll call “Joan” loves to sing – often ending a verse on a dramatic high note. During one spring visit, the AC had been turned on in the activities room and Joan complained that it was too cold. She wanted to go back to her room. But another resident suggested, “Why not go back to your room and get a sweater?” Others nodded. They knew Joan liked to be part of the group sing. It lifts her spirits and helps lift them up as well. “Go get a sweater, Joan,” they urged.
“I don’t remember where my room is,” Joan replied. One of the aides helped out, got her a light jacket, and the problem was solved. Joan might not have remembered how to get to her room just down the hall, but she recalled the words to April Showers, Button Up Your Over Coat, and You are My Sunshine. With the support of others and with the encouragement of music, Joan helped lead the sing-along.
Over time, visit by visit, I learn about the lives of these elders through music. I learn the songs they sang with their fathers, or songs that were special between them and their spouses. I learn about the woman whose brother played country music in local bars. “He looked like Conway Twitty!” The woman who used to sing in the church choir shares stories from her life. I talk with the man who used to play banjo and mandolin before his fingers went numb.
Visit by visit, I learn about the lives in rural Central NY as we become real to each other. The music connects us.
Pamela Goddard, November 4, 2019