For over five years I’ve worked occasionally with the Oakwood Retirement Community to create intergenerational programs. I began by working with Sarah Sprague who started a wonderful project called Treasured Times designed to bring seniors and pre-school aged children together to engage in meaningful activities. Sarah asked me to work with her on some musical parts of the program. We did a couple of years of grant projects around specific themes, which turned out well. In particular, we were working at Covenant Oaks at Oakwood, a unit for people with memory issues, like Alzheimer’s.
From the beginning, Sarah was interested in projects that provided genuine interaction across the ages. For example, I’ve done many concerts labeled as “intergenerational” but they mostly consisted of older folks and younger folks in the same room, listening to and singing songs. Good events, but not a huge amount of interaction.
Sarah and I created projects that had people of different ages sitting and working at tables together, talking to each other and helping each other with art work, quilting, and sensory experiences. The benefits were immediate and obvious. Both sets of generations needed help, but delighted in the opportunity to share time.
Sarah has moved to Brazil, so for the last three years, when I return to Oakwood, as I do once a twice a year, I sing with older folks from the unit and young children who come from child care or family settings. Today was one of those concerts.
We are all in the activity room. There were maybe 25 residents and as many children, with some grown up care providers and parents mixed in. My job is to have fun, and get folks interacting with each other.
Throughout the concert, I made sure to give directions and provide opportunities for kids to get up off the floor and go hold hands with residents, or hug them, or dance by them. These are mostly kids who are used to coming to Oakwood for other activities, but I was struck by how at ease they were, and how the mood in the room was light and joyful for all.
Finding common ground musically is sometimes a challenge. I did some kid songs, but also a few old favorites, like “You Are My Sunshine.” At one point, I asked for requests, and a young boy, not more than three, asked for “Working on the Railroad.” We all sang it together, and then, on a hunch, I asked him if he wanted to sing it by himself. He made it through the whole song, with only a few rhythmic anomalies, and was greeted at the end of the last line, which he made “strumming on the BIG banjo” with wild applause and laughter.
One of the residents wanted to sit next to me, so as I sang, she gave a running commentary with words and hilarious facial expression. At one point she did a dead-on solo version of the ABCs in chicken, complete with head bobs and clucks.
Anyone in the room would recognize the power and joy of young and old sharing genuine moments. Music has a particular power to facilitate these times.
I wish that these kinds of opportunities were available for every facility for aging people, and for all young children. It’s not about being a full employment act for musicians, but about providing what should be every human being’s rights, whether they are young or old – to enjoy making music together. It’s a life long skill, a life long joy, and a life long opportunity to connect, learn, and grow.