Rocking The Rest Home

About five years ago, with a year of guitar lessons “under my belt”, I was searching for a comfortable place to perform. This essay is about the success and enjoyment I have experienced while performing in several local rest homes. For those with a potential interest in this topic, I would like to laud the benefits of “Rocking the Rest Home” and also offer some practical suggestions.

For me, the goal of performing is to feel appreciated-to feel that other people are enjoying and benefiting from your music, and to build skills by getting time to perform (translation: play music, make mistakes, learn from your mistakes and see what makes people smile, clap and tap their feet) Performing in rest homes has met all of these goals and more.

First, anyone performing in this environment will, almost always, be highly appreciated. Not many people are lining up to headline the local convalescent home or senior center, so you can be a “star ” no matter what. The nursing and administrative staff in these homes tends to be appreciative as well.

Start by talking with the activities director of the facility. The activities director is a trained professional in charge of providing activities for the residents. In preparing this essay I surveyed almost twenty activities directors. In general, it is preferred to schedule about a month in advance. An optimal performance duration is from forty-five minutes to an hour. Single events can be scheduled or, if mutually agreeable, regular (i.e. monthly quarterly etc) events. I personally have found a monthly event to be a great success. Residents tend to look forward to you coming and you get to know people on a first name basis. It might be helpful to meet with the director before the first performance to scout out the room and communicate about details.

The equipment needed to perform can be as simple as an acoustic guitar, a capo, guitar picks and whatever printed material you need to perform. I usually arrange to have an armless chair to sit in and something to place the music on. Voice or instrument amps might enhance a performance but are not usually required.

What to expect? First, residents vary in their level of function. Many are very alert and like to sing and participate. Some have had strokes, Alzheimer’s disease or other debilitating conditions. This doesn’t mean that they cannot benefit from or enjoy music. There is actually a lot of research that has been done on the use of music in the rehabilitation of people with various emotional and neurological problems. Singing the Blues should prove that! Don’t forget that rest home residents are not all old people but also include some relatively younger people.

Playing in front of a mostly non-critical audience is a great way to become comfortable with performing. No waiting in line for an hour to play one or two songs at an “open mike night” This setting places less emphasis on feeling pressure to “perform perfectly” and more emphasis on giving a little bit of yourself to the audience. That, to me, touches on the true essence of doing music for others. Ruth, a lady at one rest home where I perform says, “You make us happy.” Cool!

Input from activities directors indicates that “residents like upbeat songs from the 30’s to the 60’s and that residents love to sing…” I have built up a repertoire of songs I like (Beatles, John Denver, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, etc.). I mix these with “sing along songs” that as many people as possible know by heart such as I’ve Been Working On The Railroad, Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore, Daisy (also known as Bicycle Built For Two) and Yankee Doodle. After doing this a while you realize the songs that 75 to 80 years old adults know may be different than the ones you have memorized. People always like Happy Birthday if someone is celebrating or close to celebrating a birthday. More than occasionally people in the audience will ask “Do you know this or that song” and if I don’t then I say that I will learn it and sing it for them next time. Several songs I have added in this way are: Are You Lonesome Tonight? Please Release Me and God Bless America. I have different “sets” of songs that I rotate so that I don’t sing the same songs each month. To play for an hour, I need to have twenty-five to twenty eight songs in a set. I don’t have most of the material memorized, but instead use song sheets with chords.

Michelle has come to a number of my little rest home “concerts”. When I play the Beatles song Michelle (“…ma belle…”) she jokingly says, “Don’t sing that” But she smiles as I play while she is eating popcorn and visiting with her friends. Playing in several rest homes over the past five years has been a journey for me. It has been a “space” where I could learn what works and what doesn’t, while at the same time providing entertainment and “music therapy.” I am having some fun “Rocking the Rest Home.”