Every week I play violin in nursing homes and assisted living for people with all types of conditions. Sometimes I play on a unit specifically for residents with Alzheimer's or Dementia. I face a challenge every week because the environment is often filled with outbursts and disruptions. I then strive to change and shape the music to cater to the residents and staff in hopes of creating a positive impact.
Earlier this month I went to a new healthcare facility to play for residents. I walked into a room filled with people who appeared confused or asleep. I set up my equipment and waited for the activities coordinator to continue wheeling residents into the room. The room had an open wall so people in the hallway or lobby could hear the music. I also could hear conversations and traffic from outside the room. I remember playing You Are My Sunshine and a resident inched his way towards my right side and began shouting at his phone. He said, "There is a black boy playing the fiddle! He play damn good fiddle! Damn good!" Meanwhile, I'm trying my best to continue with the song and play in tune. I couldn't help but laugh because the moment was ridiculous. The resident then took his flip phone and stretched his arm inches away from my violin so whoever was on the phone could hear the music.
In the same concert, an elderly woman in the hallway rose from her chair and began to scream profanities while I played I've Been Working On the Railroad. She said "I don't give a f*** what she said! She can shut the f*** up! F*** her!!!!" I continued playing and watched the audience seem captivated by the music. Staff smiled and sang along while residents clapped their hands. I've grown accustomed to the disruptions and outbursts because I know that's real with Alzheimer's and Dementia. Very rarely do I perform in an environment where people stop and listen. I always welcome people to sing along or fall asleep. I want the music to reach people where they are and to be comfortable being themselves.
Whenever I play in a nursing home or assisted living, I tell the audience the music is for them. Nurses often run around coordinator meal tickets and medications. If you were to look at their faces you could visibly see the stress and hear the frustration in their voices. There are moments when Nurses sing along to the music and begin to encourage residents to sing too. I hear joy instead of heavy sighs and see smiles instead of irritation. I begin to smile too and know the music has a healing impact.
The random outbursts or conversations people try to have with me as I play are all part of the experience and I wouldn't have it any other way. My hope is that we take the time to visit residents in nursing homes or assisted living and be present. I've been humbled and blessed as a violinist for doing so.