Well here I am again, playing my annual Freebie Christmas dance at the seniors home. I started doing this about ten years ago, and each year, I see different residents, different visitors, even different workers, but the feeling around the home is always the same. Appreciation. Most of those seniors never see anyone, never have a visitor who actually gives a damn whether they live or die; but I do. For the past ten years I have been donating my time to play them a free dance where they can choose to dance, listen or just chat with friends.
Oh the stories they have to tell. A war bride who emigrated here from scotland, a german lady who escaped the holocost, seeking safety here in Newfoundland, a dog lover who once owned 14 dogs at the same time, a world traveler, a woman who raised 13 kids on her own after losing her husband to TB; the stories go on. Sometimes they are true, sometimes not, who cares?
The patrons uncles, sisters, brothers, aunts, mothers, fathers…People who have all ended up here for one reason or another, dealing with issues like aging, dementia, mental illness, disabilities and possibly even loneliness, and somehow ended up living under the same roof like family.
Most of the residents enjoy the music, some complain it is too loud (when they are actually deaf and cannot hear anything but vibrations on the floor), but some truly enjoy and appreciate it, and they are the ones I am here for, which is 90% of the crowd gathered in this tiny room with the fine hardwood floor, tapping their canes on the floor to the beat of the music.
Some of the visitors who have dropped by today are family members of the residents, some are seniors themselves who feel plenty lonely this time of year and seek a place to go and enjoy themselves. There are plenty of children here today as well, and the seniors relish in watching the kids dance, sing, and enjoy themselves. The only pity is that once Christmas is over, things pretty much return to the way it usually is, and that is sad.
Truth is, the ‘way it usually is’ is lonely. For the most part, the daily schedule of a senior living in a retirement home is basically wake up, eat breakfast, watch the news, go back to sleep, wake up to eat lunch, sleep til supper, eat, watch the news, and then sleep again. Birthday and holidays and every day is usually spent this way, without visitation from family or friends. Pretty bleak, and we are all getting old, someday this may be us in this situation. Some are fooled by family members who only visit on social security check day, to get what they can from their parents and grandparents.This is sad really.
Back in ’05, I tried to change this, with a project I founded called Friends Visiting Friends. the main goal of the project was to attempt to bring communities into retirement homes, and bring seniors in to communities. The project was fairly successful, with the end goal being awareness about seniors and the fact that just because they live in retirement homes, they are not dead.
Thankfully today, that atmosphere is not the one that surrounds us. About 75 seniors are sitting in their comfortable chairs, surrounding the dance floor. Trays of candies and other sweets are strewn along the walls, tables are set in the middle of the room with every kind of homebaked goodie a person could think of, a large cake sits on one table, wishing merry christmas to everyone in the room. Staff members dress as mummers and act silly for the seniors, who are apparently enjoying themselves. The manager’s husband is dressed as Santa, and despite the fact that he just worked a double shift at the plant, he made it a point to come here today for the seniors. Devotion, a rare commodity these days, but one that is appreciated by everyone in attendance.
Dressed in full Santa regalia and rubber boots up to his knees, he dances around like a clown for the seniors, and they are eating it up! He is sitting down now, either from the warmth of the retirement home (seniors are always cold, so the temperature in here is way up, you can tell that from the fact that I myself am almost melted, and I am sitting by the door), or because of his cold. He stays his distance from the seniors though and promises that he had a medical examination from his wife, the manager and head nurse of the establishment.
As he calls each of the names of both seniors and children visiting, they are treated to gifts from St NIck himself (a slim down version of course), and a few of the seniors even tell Santa what they want for Christmas, and this brings a tear to his eyes. He later tells me that the most common wish from the seniors is that they are not forgotten, and that tomorrow, when this is all over, someone actually takes the time to drop by and have a chat, or maybe even a cup of tea. Not much to ask, is it? He calls out one old lady’s name, but she is too feeble to walk over, so Santa makes a trip to her. He presents her with her gift, and when he attempts to leave a small kiss on her cheek, she has other plans. At 97 years of age, she gives Santa a run for his money, and passionatly kisses him back, to his surprise. Nothing like red cheeks for Santa. This is but an example of the fact that with seniors, you never quite know what to expect!
After the guy in the suit makes his exit, I play many more tunes and after two hours, the seniors are tuckered out and hungry. Their lives are based on schedule, and 4 p.m. is supper time. Nothing is more important than supper, especially today, where the community got together and donated enough turkeys for everyone to enjoy. I sit with the residents and partake in the meal with them, just as I have been doing for the past ten years. I do this not only because the food smells delicious, but because those people have been family to me ever since I began volunteering at the home. Others should do the same. When it is time to leave, a few of them shed tears, and so do I, but they know I will be back soon. Hopefully I can coax a few others to join me.