Author: Martin, George

Memories are made of ... music

One of the first gigs I ever played (if playing free counts as a gig) was for the Red Cross chapter in the little town of Crockett, where I grew up. The chapter had some kind of volunteer relationship with the Napa State Hospital and they sent us up there to play a dance for the mental patients.

That was more than a half-century ago, so my memories are a little dim. I recall my father driving us up a long avenue looking for the proper building, and being led by white-coated staff along dimly lit corridors to an activity room. “We” were the Carquinez Valley Boys: my high-school classmates Howard Walters on lead guitar, Ron Shuler on accordion (or piano when there was one, which was rarely), me on rhythm guitar and Ed Dorsch on snare drum.

Ron, the accordion player, was a little nervous. He had a suspicion that they might not let him out. Later my mother observed that some of the staff looked odder than the patients.

Our little band played only instrumentals, as we were all too shy to sing in public and we only had our guitar amps, nothing for vocals anyway. But we were a big success, in spite of ourselves. The nurses told us that having real people play for them made an enormous difference to the patients. “People who never get out of their chairs were dancing tonight,” one said. “They appreciate it so much.” One patient even asked my mother to dance.

We returned there several more times, then I went off to college, Ed moved away as did Howard, I lost track of Ron and the Carquinez Valley Boys were no more.

Fast forward fifty-plus years and the Prairie Rose Band is playing at a senior residence in the East Bay. When we were arranging the gig the activities director asked if, after we did our concert for the residents, would we mind playing about a half-hour for the people in the memory care unit. “Memory care” in the senior living business is code for “dementia.” Some of the residents are extremely old and some are Alzheimers patients, but by the time they get into memory care their awareness of where they are and what they are doing is mostly pretty sketchy.

We left our PA equipment behind and followed the activities director up the elevator and along a hallway to the memory unit, where we found about a dozen people sitting around mostly looking blank.

(I want to add parenthetically here that we have met many activities directors, all of whom seem to be really nice people. One doesn’t do a job like this unless one is a real people person. But this young woman was especially warm, and engaged with the residents in an exceptional way. Senior living places vary a lot in decor and amenities but this kind of empathy is, in my book, more important than one’s physical surroundings. The people there are blessed to have her.)

People entering the world of dementia tend to forget recent things first; often they can tell you about their childhoods with perfect clarity yet have no idea what day it is or where they are living. So when we play for memory units we do Stephen Foster songs and other old favorites they probably learned when they were very young.

We started playing and faces brightened all around the room. Feet were tapping and some folks were softly singing along. But one woman just sat, silent and immobile. She wasn’t one of the real old ones, so I assumed she was an early onset dementia or Alzheimers patient. I decided to focus on her as much as possible.

Three or four songs in, her toe started tapping a bit. Another song or two and she was definitely paying attention, tapping her foot. We only had a few songs left; I sang right at her and with only one more song to go I got the reaction I was hoping for -- a smile.

This was not a high-pay gig; senior residences usually have very small entertainment budgets and tend to hire singles or duos. But we all agreed afterwards that we would play there again anytime. The residents downstairs had been very responsive and pleased to hear us, but the ones upstairs, who became engaged with the world for a short time through song, had made us all happy to be pickers.

Posted:  12/13/2012

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