Why I Love Assisted Living Gigs

plantsMy first love is music. From school choirs to guitar to the drums to singing and fronting bands, singing and playing harmonica and guitar, a brief stint as a record producer (I got great UK national press reviews – The Times, The Guardian etc – for Billy Jenkins ‘When The Crowds Have Gone’) and now assisted living gigs! Along the way I had an IT career, but a recent serious illness has curtailed that pretty much, not so much through incapacity as loss of desire! Looking for a new career to set my heart on, I hit upon performing at assisted living locations nearby. I had recent experience booking Yoga sessions for a friend David Ibrahim ( //www.divineyogala.com ), and accompanied him to about 4 of them, that was in the summer of 2012. I greatly enjoyed the experience, it felt great to be genuinely helping the residents with their health and sense of purpose, they enjoyed the attention and care and at the end of each session I walk around and have a few words, shake or hold hands, hear a few stories…

I’m not sure when the idea of playing music first sparked. It may have been after I regained contact with a friend in England I had been to college with. He mentioned a guy he knew called ‘Dave Elvis’ an elderly Elvis impersonator, saying how dedicated he was to what he did, citing an example where they had both walked out of a supermarket, bags in hand, and some people recognised Dave and asked for a song a request he happily and enthusiastically obliged! My friend was so impressed with his dedication to the role, and I guess, his ‘service’.

What followed was a learning experience…. The first couple of gigs I did with no amplification at all just me and a guitar, I think I thought it would help me ‘connect’ with the audience in a more intimate way. At the second gig, someone said they couldn’t hear it, and one of the carers there quickly brought out a mini guitar amp, mic and stand. It wasn’t an amazing sound system, but we did ‘rock out’ a bit, and I could feel the difference. I was like ‘duh’, there is a distinct possibility of AL residents having limited hearing, and I wasn’t meeting that need with no amp. I had most of the gear I needed, great speakers, mics and stands but I needed a ‘mixer amp’ and a friend, Ralph, came to my aid with the loan of a great ‘Acoustic ™’ pa head.
While working on my new set another aspect struck me, I perform several different genres, I’d expected to do quite a bit of the Great American Songbook in something of a Frank Sinatra style, and at the first gig there had been a general request for ‘Western songs’ so there would be country along with Elvis, Beatles etc. In addition I had learned some Mexican Boleros in Spanish – ‘Sabor a Mi’, ‘Historia de un Amor’ to help involve and show respect and compassion for Spanish speakers in the audience. I figured it would help to use backing tracks to ‘set the scene’ for the different genres, swinging band sounds for Frank Sinatra, Mariachi horns for the boleros and so on. Playing with new setup was truly amazing, the beat, louder voice with the mic. I sometimes feel that I haven’t ‘served my apprenticeship’ with guitar on stage, my early live music career was playing drums, I did play when fronting bands but just on a few songs. It was great to be relieved of that duty on the more difficult jazz standards especially, allowing me to focus on singing and communicating. I feature a fully acoustic section in the show, and also play along with country songs etc. The new setup also allowed me to play harmonica freely on a few numbers, I’m pretty hot on the harmonica doing blues style solos etc, and so much the better to be able to focus solely on it when playing.

Sooo… what’s so great about it? Well there are some humdrum things – It’s good to play nearby and during the day, helps with the traveling. And I’m not knocking it, but it is refreshing to be away from guys drinking at the bar! Things ramp up when I feel I’m contributing to the local community. I also love mid-20th century material. In a way it is ‘before my time’, but I have such respect for those Great American Songbook writers, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins – on many levels they were geniuses – the harmonic and melodic subtlety and complexity, the poetic lyricality, the swinging beats all add up to something magical, something that I’ve wanted to celebrate since listening to Django Reinhardt records in my teens! I have actually sung some over the years on stage, but not the extent I can now. It’s been wonderful to open up to the worlds of 50’s/60’s boleros and to help my learning Spanish by singing it in the songs and to revisit the Elvis, Glen Campbell and country classics, but most of all it is the people.

The audience, the people. It is wider than you might imagine, as well as the residents, there are staff and usually a few visitors who widen out the demographic of the audience. A big surprise is that some residents who may suffer advanced dementia, and seem quite unaware, can ‘come to life’ with feet tapping out the beat, a wide smile on their face and arms waving in the air! Some of the guests can get up and dance, with or without the help of carers, bring back old times, feel more ‘normal’ and even elated for a while. Residents in these homes can generally withdraw into a shell, become wallflower like, I’ve often heard old age referred to as becoming ‘invisible’. It is my job to bring back ‘visibilitiy’, joy, smiles, the joy of dance, remembrance of great times and maybe more important something to look forward to!


And, along with the residents, there are always some staff and visitors in the audience, loving it, and for the visitors especially, the feeling that I’m there doing my best, and showing the greatest love and care to their loved ones!