Bringing inter-generational music to the community

Debora Van Brenk // Western NewsKristal Daniels, a Don Wright Faculty of Music graduate student, is one of three musicians-in-residence at the new Oakcrossing Retirement Living in London. Musicians, and residents such as Bill Holland (below) benefit from the relationships formed from a partnership that is, so far, unique in the province.

The atonal clatter of utensils on plates falls away to near-silence when Kristal Daniels, accompanying herself on grand piano, begins to sing a soulful Verdi love song. One elderly diner whispers to her table partner, “It is so lovely to have our own lunchtime concert.”

For residents at Oakcrossing Retirement Living in London, three musicians-in-residence from Western have been an enrichment to their daily lives – whether the students are fine-tuning test pieces, presenting a music program or shooting billiards with a grandfatherly pool shark in the recreation room.

For the upper-year students from the Don Wright Faculty of Music, the opportunity has been at least as meaningful.

That’s why Daniels, a Vocal Performance graduate student, whose family lives in New Jersey, has come here to live and work. Far from home for the first time, she missed connecting with people in the way she had done as a choir director. She recalled fondly the friendships she’d made while accompanying her music-director mother to area nursing homes.

“What I enjoy about my work here is the community I’ve built within it, and music’s ability to translate love beyond age and status ­– and just to teach them and also learn as much in my relationships with them,” she said.

Moving into Oakcrossing “gave me something important besides my studies and being stuck in my room. I could learn and live in the community at the same time. They’re my family here,” Daniels said.

While some other seniors’ homes integrate gerontology or physical therapy students into daily living, the musicians-in-residence program is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, said Heather Gingerich, Director of Employee and Community Engagement at peopleCare Communities, which owns Oakcrossing.

An alumna of Western Music, Gingerich heard of a similar venture in Ohio and decided it could be a good fit for London, as peopleCare added a retirement home to its long-term care facility just west of Western’s campus.

Last semester, the home welcomed Daniels, flute/piano student Ivy Manouchehri and vocal student Shirleen Xu. In return for free accommodation, the students commit to spend at least 12 hours a week with residents.

“It’s been exactly what we’d envisioned from the beginning,” Gingerich said. “The residents love living with the students, love interacting with the students and love listening to the students.”

Not only performing informal and impromptu concerts, the students have started a residence choir and take part in shuffleboard and pool tournaments.

Oakcrossing resident Bill Holland said the musicians-in-residence program is why he moved here late last year.

During a visit with his wife Irene, in the long-term care area of the home, he was startled to hear a live rendition of Puccini’s Perduto la pace. To him, the song is unforgettable evidence of the love he and his wife of 66 years share.

“The first time we heard it, we were at Banff Springs Hotel and there were three opera singers in there as we were eating – oh my God, they were wonderful – and they sang that song,” he said. “This just got to me because my wife had the onset of her Alzheimer’s and I didn’t know it, although I knew something was wrong.

“I heard Kristal sing and thought, ‘Holy mackerel, I love this.’ I had to go live where I could hear something like that all the time.”

The idea to integrate young people into a seniors’ facility ­– some with more than 60-years difference between them – has benefited both, Gingerich said.

Initially, some seniors were worried they might inadvertently interfere with the students’ practice time. Instead, they receive plenty of encouragement from their younger neighbours, and there are often sing-alongs around the piano.

On this day, for example, Holland approached Daniels to share some of his favourite songs on cassette tape, while another resident asked her for tips about how to improve vocal range and endurance.

While this program may be a first in Canada, the Don Wright Faculty of Music is no stranger to a range of community outreach in concerts and other performances, said Music Dean Betty Anne Younker.

“There’s a sense of history that seniors will bring to the table in conversations and in engagement … our generation can learn from that,” Younker said. “I see it as a tremendous opportunity for community engagement and relationships that students can foster ­– in intergenerational living, people learn from each other and there’s a sense of reciprocity.”

Meanwhile, Gingerich continues to field requests for more information from media and retirement homes across the country.

“People ask, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’ I don’t have an answer for that. I just don’t think people got around to thinking about it,” she said.