Initiate a conversation about care for the elderly, and certain images may come to mind: sterile living spaces devoid of personality, a dining room of quiet pastel formica, the hushed environment of a waiting room or lobby and men and women in the bland smock that is so often the uniform of the health care professional.
Topping the list of visions that one probably does not associate with the topic, however, is that of a jazz musician performing his take on one of the standards of the genre. Yet, that is exactly the scene that might have the feel of familiarity for residents of any of 10 nursing homes and/or Alzheimer’s units in the Truckee Meadows region. The Elder Care Concert Series, administered by the Sierra Arts Foundation, with support from Healing Healthcare Systems, the City of Reno Arts and Culture Commission and the Leonette Foundation, provides live music to those who reside at these facilities. These one-hour concerts take place twice a week, providing classical music, jazz, swing, big band and traditional folk music for populations of seniors who do not otherwise have the means, nor the health, to attend live musical performances.
The Elder Care Concert Series began in 2002 as a project of Sierra Arts and Healing Healthcare Systems to ease some of the isolation experienced by the residents of these facilities and to present a forum for community among them. Healing Healthcare Systems is a Reno-based company that develops media products — such as in-house video/audio programming and ambient music- designed to be directly supportive of the healing process in institutionalized settings.
The concept for the concert series grew from the personal experiences of Healing Healthcare’s president, Susan Mazer, and her husband and partner, Dallas Smith, both of whom are former full-time performing and recording artists. They performed for seniors in an assisted living facility where Smith’s parents were residents, just two months before his mother passed away. Mazer says that their experience, supported by research, has shown that music can positively affect how those who live in such facilities feel about themselves and their situation, “making those musical moments ones in which the sense of well-being transcends suffering .”
An initial seed funding from Healing Healthcare of $5,000 was matched by Reno’s Arts and Culture Commission, and the first concert of the series took place in May of 2002. Featuring Tommy Sands, an Irish musician who performs internationally, the concert was presented to Alzheimer’s residents at Clare Bridge and Alterra Wynwood facilities. Jill Berryman, Executive Director of Sierra Arts was an audience member for that first concert and says, “It was amazing to witness the transformation of the residents in one hour’s time. It was like watching time-lapse photography of a rose blooming, starting out with the tightest bud, people not socializing or interacting at all, to the full bloom when suddenly residents moved to the first row, they began singing along, they started talking to each other and having eye contact with Tommy and the staff. I cry sometimes when I think about what took place and the power the arts have to make it happen.”
The musicians who participate in the Elder Care Concert Series, as well as personnel at the facilities in which the performances take place, attend mandatory training sessions for the program. This training provides tools for all parties involved to enhance the overall artistic impact of the concerts. Through training and first-hand experience at the facilities, musicians gain skills which allow them to interact comfortably with the residents and to perform their music in ways in which will be best received and enjoyed by those suffering from Alzheimer’s and age-related ailments. Training for staff at the sites allows them to create an environment that will best facilitate the residents’ enjoyment of and participation in the concerts. It also helps staff to create the atmosphere of ‘ritual’ that is so much a part of combating the residents’ sense of isolation.
In the magazine, Nursing Homes Long Term Care Management, Susan Mazer detailed the program, and spoke to the benefits of the Elder Care Concert Series performances as recurring events, around which to build this sense of ‘ritual. ‘ “Presenting concerts in nursing homes or hospitals is not a new idea. However, an eldercare concert series, whose specific intention is to enrich the facility’s culture and enhance residents’ quality of life, has far more comprehensive impact than a one-time or occasional event.” She has also written that, “After returning to the facilities to perform several times, the relationships between the musicians and their audiences develop into a partnership that benefits everyone- staff, residents and musicians.”
So, while jazz musicians and live musical performances may not be among traditional imagery usually associated with nursing homes and Alzheimer’s units, that may be changing at a number of local facilities. In fact, those very experiences, anticipated by the residents and established as recurring events, may be becoming an integral part of their sense of community and of place; they may very well be those musical moments to which Mazer referred , in which that segment of our society who reside in these facilities can achieve a sense of well-being that transcends their suffering.
For more information about the Elder Care Concert Series, please contact Sierra Arts at 775-329-ARTS/2787.
Funding for this program provided by: