Bright lights and euphoria
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Musicians: Kat Eaton (vocals) Pete Lee (piano)
Today was only my fourth visit to Bridgeside Lodge but I’m already beginning to feel like part of the furniture. I am getting to know more about the residents, and while they might not recognise me at first, there is a comfortable and familiar connection developing between us.
My friend and colleague, pianist Peter Lee invited me to join him one Saturday in the Summer of 2021 and gently showed me the ropes. Back then I was anxious about being in a care home after witnessing the gradual demise of my grandfather, who suffered with vascular dementia. I visited his care home many years ago only a handful of times, not nearly enough, which I now regret. I needn’t have been fearful of visiting Bridgeside though. Instead I was struck by the kindness and patience of the carers and the soothing impact it had on the residents. Today was no exception.
We began on the ground floor in the dining room, where JG, JR and IG had just finished a hearty breakfast. IG welcomed us with a huge smile and although he has limited speech, he gave us the acknowledgement we needed to know that playing music would be welcome here. Enthusiastically nodding his head, reaching out his hand, palm upwards, in a gesture that I interpret as ‘be my guest’.
We went into a rendition of Moondance by Van Morrison with Pete playing the piano and me playing the shaker and singing. The shaker got JR’s attention and he started to move his foot a little to the beat but then got side tracked with what looked like a delicious yogurt – who could blame him?! I asked half way through whether the residents recognised the song and the general consensus was that they didn’t, so Pete and I naturally curtailed Moondance and went straight into Lady Is A Tramp. JG knew all the lyrics, and sang along joyfully while IG nodded his head and smiled and JR happily munched his yogurt, not necessarily engaging with the music. Once we’d finished playing the Ella Fitzgerald classic, Pete and I briefly explored song choices that JR might enjoy. Pete mentioned that JR was a big fan of reggae and so we began playing One Love and he instantly engaged eye contact with me, put down his spoon and starting singing.
His voice is beautiful, almost reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, with a distinct tone and ability to sing high without breaking. I shut up for a moment and encourage him take the lead. He did so without hesitation. Pete and I joined him on the choruses, as does JG, and for a moment we are all connected by the power of great song-writing when we collectively sang ‘Let’s get together and feel alright.”
After two more Bob Marley songs in which JR took centre stage, followed by huge applause from Pete and I and the carers, I say to him “You have a beautiful voice”. JR confidently replies “everyone tells me that!” and adds “applause for me!” and we all happily oblige.
Pete and I leave the room humming Three Little Birds. It’s been posited by other practitioners working with music in healthcare settings that continuing to sing/hum/play as you leave a room prevents an abrupt end to the music. The music lives on and the residents keep singing, humming or thinking about the music. It’s reassuring to think that we are potentially leaving the room with the message “don’t worry about a thing” echoing around their minds.
Neither Pete nor I have worked with J before. We stood in her doorway and briefly asked her if she’d like to hear any music. She politely and respectively declined and we left her in peace. Sometimes residents don’t want to hear music, so learning when not to play is just as important as learning when to play. In an industry where we are employed to entertain, this is always a humbling lesson to be reminded of.
Moving through to the first floor dining room we meet JS who is quite spritely and chatty today. On the occasions I’ve met him his mood has been quite low and he’s not spoken much. Today, however, when we ask him if we should play some music he assures us that “this is your home too, do what you like”. It felt good to know that he sees us as equals.
It’s a strange feeling being in the role of “care-giver” and, if I’m being honest, something I’m not entirely comfortable with. When Pete and I reflected on our experience with JS later, Pete said “I didn’t want to upset JS’s sense of independence by playing for him, because he seemed a bit defensive. Perhaps he’d rather just jump in when the music is already happening rather than feeling like we’re ‘forcing’ him to engage?” I agreed and it led us on to talk about how different this kind of performing feels compared to performing on stage in front of an audience.
All the musicians working with The Spitz are touring professionals, which at times can be a selfish and narcissistic pursuit compared to working in healthcare. Providing music for entertainment and providing music as a form of therapy are two very different things. For a start you have to leave your ego and your Mariah Carey ad-libs at the door and focus on the needs and wants of the individual. Working at Bridgeside Lodge has reminded me of the power of music and its ability to transcend disability. Everyone can enjoy music and partake in music-making, even if it’s a quiet hum or simply the shuffle of feet. We can all set our own sounds to music. So I’m sometimes at odds when a resident is looking awestruck whilst we’re performing. When you’re on stage, someone in the audience might look at you like that, but amidst the bright lights and the euphoria of performing live, your ego relishes the attention. But here it’s different.
It’s uncomfortable and at the same time completely amazing to gaze into a resident’s eyes whilst singing to them, neither of us looking away. That took me a lot of getting used to, having performed to audiences who start to feel inhibited if you stare into their eyes for too long and visa versa. It’s funny how we all want to feel “seen” but when someone gives you their undivided attention you often end up shying away. But not JG. She locks eyes and doesn’t let go and the brief connection we share is brilliant and intense. It breathes new life into the both of us.
On the 2nd floor we walk past the sound of football on the TV coming from one of the resident’s rooms accompanied by a woman’s voice saying “GOAL”. I clock the name on the door. It’s DG; a resident who came to live at Bridgeside in Autumn of 2021. It’s just DG and his wife in his room today. Pete and I played to him, his wife and his son at the end of last year and we remembered them fondly so we decide to knock on for just a quick catch-up, assuming they’d rather watch the footy than listen to music. DG’s wife welcomes us in and tells us that she thinks DG would love to hear some music but also watch the footy – he’s a big Everton fan as it goes. We opt for keeping the TV on but on mute so he can have the best of both worlds – footy and music combined. DG’s wife goes on to tell us in great detail about DG’s career. How he travelled the world going to conferences in France and Holland and that he was meant to be at a conference tomorrow in Dubai.
DG’s dementia has developed quickly and it’s been a bit of a shock to him and his family. Talking to DG’s wife it becomes clear that our interaction is just as important to her as it is to DG. She says that she wants everyone to know as much as possible about DG so we can get to know him. We reassure her that even when she’s not there (she comes for a few hours everyday) we still visit DG and she’s really pleased to hear this. Together we play Otis Redding’s Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay with the 3 of us playing shakers and Pete on piano. When it comes to the whistle solo Pete suddenly pipes up and whistles the melody loud and proud and DG turns to his wife, chuckles and jests “look at him!” We all laugh and then DG’s wife’s eyes widen as she shares with us that those are the first words he’s spoken in days. He utters a few more choice words to his wife that we can’t hear as we’re still playing and they both smile from ear to ear. Witnessing moments like this, it’s hard to keep singing without your voice breaking. Suddenly the phone rings. It’s DG’s sister on Facetime and as soon as DG’s wife answers the call, he exclaims “Annie!” DG’s wife looks at us dumbfounded and says “Yes, Annie your sister!” We quietly leave the room to let them catch up with Annie and DG’s wife thanks us as we go.
Our last session is with SR who seems to recognise us and welcomes us in. SR seems quite energetic and engaged today so we suggest playing something fun and upbeat to which she replies ‘I don’t mind”. Pete suggests Whitney Houston and suddenly her face lights up. We bust into I Wanna Dance With Somebody and a nurse in the hallway starts singing and comes in to SR’s room dancing and clapping along. Often it feels inappropriate to play upbeat songs in this setting but somehow we felt the moment was right. Afterwards we asked SR if she wanted another song and she quickly announced “Run To You, it’s my favourite”. So we launched into another Whitney classic. Although SR was unable to pitch she still said ‘run to you’ at the right time during the chorus in the right metre. Later on Pete and I wondered if we might be able to help her with her pitching, if she felt so inclined to sing for us again, when we visit her next. Then we sang Tale As Old As Time from Beauty & The Beast, which we learnt was another one of SR’s favourite’s.
When Pete and I reflected over a pint in the pub afterwards, we both opened up and said how we were feeling a little daunted before we arrived today. After a long week of gigging, recording and general admin, the apprehension of visiting people who are looking to you to potentially alleviate their worries and stresses can feel like a huge weight to carry. We’re not formally trained therapists and we’re not kidding ourselves that music cures all ills. But there is a duty of care that we both want to uphold and that responsibility can be a little emotionally draining at times. But as soon as we started working with the first resident we both visibly relaxed and the rest of the session we were able to enjoy making music with all these wonderful people. And that’s probably because the residents and carers welcome us with open arms. Music in healthcare is truly a two-way street.