BY PATRICK DRIGANS | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I am on a life journey with my ukulele. In the course of my almost 20 years of playing, I have had scores of marvelous ukulele experiences. Since I purchased my first ukulele in 2004 from friends Joe and Kristin Souza at Kanile’a Ukulele, I have learned much on my amazing adventure. Along the way I have been able to meet and/or take lessons from great ukulele players both past and present, including Eddie Kamae, James Hill, Jake Shimabakuro, Kimo Hussey, Moses Kahumoku, Keoki Kahumoku, Brad Bordessa, Brittni Paiva, and Herb Ohta, Jr. I’ve taken my ukulele around the world and played music for people everywhere I’ve been. I’ve learned that sometimes playing ukulele is about having sheer fun, sometimes it is about playing technique and mastering a musical arrangement, and other times it can be about awakening music and memories in people in a way that brings them great happiness.
Over the past several years I’ve been playing ukulele music for senior citizens, including those with dementia. My experiences playing music for seniors has become a great source of joy in my life because I have so much fun doing it. I have found something I can actually do to serve other people and give back to make for a better world.
How It All Began
It all started about six years ago when my wife, Nancy, and I started playing for seniors with our friend Jean at local nursing homes, memory care, and assisted living facilities here in Wright County, Minnesota (outside of Minneapolis). We were first invited to play by a friend of Nancy’s who worked as an events coordinator at a memory care center. Because Jean, Nancy, and I had already been playing music together for years in our homes and at our local ukulele club, we reasoned that it shouldn’t be too tough to play a selection of our old-time songs for the resident seniors at the memory care center. We were right. After a while and a bit of success, we were invited to play for seniors at other local venues, so we did that, too.
Thelma is in her 80s and can no longer carry on an extended conversation, but she really comes alive during our musical sing-along sessions.
Try as you might, you will never find a more receptive, easy-to-play-for, and forgiving audience than seniors. This special audience isn’t concerned with how well you play the ukulele or sing. They are mostly just happy and grateful that you personally came to see and make music for them. After having years of experience playing for many groups of seniors, the thought of being uncomfortable or having stage fright playing for them isn’t a factor for me anymore. I am very comfortable. In fact, I joke with my friends that for me, one of the most beautiful things about playing for seniors is that it’s a perfect alignment between my musical skills, which are very limited, and their need to hear music, which is very great. By the positive reception I get performing for seniors, I know that playing for them is the closest I’ll ever get in my life to being a rock star.
Good Times Playing for Seniors with Dementia
We have had so many wonderful experiences performing in memory care centers and stories to tell about them. For instance, during one of our performances at a local memory care center, Charlotte, an older woman with dementia, was sitting in her wheelchair really enjoying our energetic version of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue (Has Anybody Seen My Gal?).” Suddenly, and to the amazement of everyone, Charlotte slowly rose up and started taking small dance steps to the music. We just kept playing and marveled at this miraculous sight until the end of the song, when Charlotte slowly sat down again. After our performance we greeted all of the residents with a touch of the hand and a look in the eye and thanked them for being a great audience. When I greeted Charlotte, I shook her hand and thanked her for dancing. She looked up at me, a bit bewildered, and said, “I danced?” Memory comes and goes.
Recently we have been playing for Thelma, another lovely woman with dementia. We play at her home residence in the company of her caretaker and a few friends and neighbors. Thelma is in her 80s and can no longer carry on an extended conversation, but to our amazement she really comes alive during our musical sing-along sessions. When we perform, she sings or hums the melody along with the music and she does so in perfect pitch. Friends and neighbors who stop by love to witness this and then they get inspired to sing along. The end result is a wonderful, fun social experience for all.
After another performance at a memory care center, a senior resident clasped my hand, looked me in the eye, and told me that she just loved when we come to play for her but that she always gets sad after we leave because everything becomes boring for her again. What a sweet but poignant thing for her to say.
What Works for Us
From our own playing experience, we have learned that seniors with dementia tend to respond better and come alive singing, smiling, or tapping their toes more when they are familiar with the songs we are performing. We get the best responses from our audiences, most of whom were born in the 1930s or ’40s, when we play old popular songs they know, like “Five Foot Two,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” as well as tunes such as “Edelweiss” (from The Sound of Music), “Amazing Grace,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Happy Trails.” The beloved song “You Are My Sunshine” is another that never fails to deliver. I would note, too, that even newer songs from the 1970s, like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” seem to be well enough known and liked by seniors these days. We’ve also observed that singing a personal “Happy Birthday” to anyone, including a person with dementia, is just about the best! Seniors all love to sing “Happy Birthday.” (Note: Song sheets for all the above listed songs and many others that might interest you can be accessed from our local ukulele club website).
We have also learned that a one-hour program is pretty much a good practical limit for the length of a performance. Sometimes, less is more. We have found that attention spans of seniors begin to wane after an hour; they just get tired out, or need to use the restroom.
After we finish playing, we always go out into the audience and greet each person personally, one by one. We look into their eyes, touch their hands, and thank them for being such a great audience; we let them know that we really enjoyed playing for them. You would be amazed at how much this follow-up gesture means to them. When we do this, often they will clutch our hands and tell us a story about their life. We touch a lot of hearts when we play our ukuleles for seniors. Human personal touch—it means so much!
If this article has piqued your interest and you want to play your ukulele for a group of seniors, you might wonder what your next steps should be. The job requirements are pretty simple. First, you have to have a senior audience to play for. You may have family or extended family members who are seniors or maybe you have friends that know seniors that would love to have someone come play music for them. That’s a place to start. Beyond that, make a few phone calls to local assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or memory care centers and ask for the person who coordinates events and activities. Introduce yourself and tell them you play ukulele music and are looking for an opportunity to perform for their residents. You can tell them about the music you like to play, how long you would be performing, whether you would be coming alone or with others, and that you would be doing it on a volunteer basis.
Second, you’ll need to have a set of songs that you can play and sing. I recommend putting together a playlist of at least six to ten songs—preferably older songs, even hymns—that will be familiar to your intended senior audience. Over time, we have learned to shuffle in or out songs that work for our audience. If a song resonates with our audience, we keep it in our playlist; if it doesn’t we don’t. And it will likely change over time. For instance, some Beatles songs already work for some residents, and I expect that trend will continue as more Baby Boomers become residents of these facilities in the coming years and decades.
Once you have your gig booked, there’s nothing to it but to do it! If you are a little nervous about performing for seniors all by yourself, see if you can recruit one or two other friends to come play with you—it’s really true that there’s safety in numbers; the more the merrier! Make sure that you come prepared with everything that you need: The basics include your ukulele, tuner, music stand and music (if needed), a chair or stool, a bottle of water, and maybe some clothes pins to hold the music pages if you are playing outside. Just to be safe, I use a gig checklist of things to bring along.
Beyond that, try to do everything you can to perform energetically and lovingly for them. You are their performer, their entertainer, for that hour. Talk to them, be comforting, tell everyday stories, and above all, smile and relax. That’s about it.
Give it a shot! What do you have to lose? You might find, like I did, that this is a wonderful opportunity to share the joy of playing the ukulele while bringing a little light and happiness into the lives of others.