Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Spreading Cheer

Christmas hasn't been quite the same for the past three years. For some years prior, Henry and I had made a point of visiting my Aunt Marge in a nursing home in Alhambra every year on Christmas day which also happened to be her birthday. At first, we brought a guitar and mandolin inside the home with only the thought of singing a tune or two for Aunt Marge, but in no time at all, a small crowd gathered around us. Appreciative staff would wheel folks up to where we were playing, and we were more than happy to sing Christmas carols and old standards for anyone who would listen. It surprised us when we would walk through the door after a year-long absence to be greeted with the question, “Did you bring your instruments?” We were remembered! Even happy songs might bring an occasional tear to the eye of a resident as memories stirred of times past, but the music mostly brought smiles and tapping toes. We didn't get a chance to play for Aunt Marge in 2008; she was in the hospital. With her passing on December 26th, the day after her 96th birthday, our tradition of playing for the folks at the nursing home in Alhambra came to an end.

Playing for Aunt Marge wasn't my first musical foray into a nursing home at Christmastime. In the late 1990s, I taught at a group home school for emotionally-disturbed juvenile offenders. Many of the boys came from troubled family backgrounds and couldn't count on warm and happy family gatherings during the holidays. I thought it might be eye-opening for them to see some folks who were confined over the holidays not by the “system”, but by age and infirmity. For two weeks we practiced Christmas carols, culminating in a “dress rehearsal” where we donned Santa hats and strolled through the classrooms while I accompanied the carolers on guitar. The day of the nursing home visit, I began the morning by having them read the poem “See Me” (You can Google it), in order to drive home the point that the people they were about to meet had once led full and active lives. When we entered the nursing facility, I could sense shock in some of the street-tough youths as they were confronted by the sight of so many aged folks in wheelchairs. Many of the patients appeared unresponsive and unaware of their surroundings, but we quickly launched into “Jingle Bells”, and one could sense an immediate shift in the attitude of both singers and listeners. The boys rose to the occasion and did a fine job of spreading holiday cheer. I wonder sometimes about my former students, and hope that they were able to overcome the considerable challenges that each of them faced. The compassion they showed to the nursing home residents, bridging the age and cultural gap with music, gives me hope that at least some of them may have gone on to lead productive lives.

The Old Time Fiddlers Association District 5 in the Sacramento area had a long-standing holiday tradition of playing for the residents of a nursing home in Fair Oaks. The musical presentation consisted of a group jam in the main lobby for ambulatory residents, followed by smaller groups of strolling musicians visiting the rooms of bedridden patients. Music was never forced on anyone who wasn't interested, but most residents seemed more than happy for the chance to break up the monotony of their day with some live music.

Of course, playing music for nursing home residents can happen during any season. CBA member Don Sikes of Bakersfield has for many years organized a group of campers to visit convalescent homes in the Grass Valley area during the week preceding the Fathers Day Festival. It's been reported that nursing home residents who were generally unresponsive would often perk up when the musicians began playing familiar country and bluegrass tunes. Of course, there is always the exception: There was the time when an elderly woman who looked especially grumpy was approached by a sweet older gentleman from the CBA. He asked her age, and she replied that she was 100 years old. He responded that was just wonderful, and he was going to play some music especially for her, to which the centenarian replied, “Ask me if I give a ****!!” Well, you can't please everyone, but there is no doubt that sharing a gift of music is appreciated by “almost” everyone.

I'm hoping to rekindle our tradition of playing music for nursing home residents this holiday season. And I'd like to think that if I ever find myself residing in a convalescent home, someone will come and play some music for me.
Posted:  12/2/2010

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