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Playing In Retirement Homes and Convalescent Hospitals

Posted by banjopogo on Tuesday, December 2, 2014

(I posted this in a recent thread, and it occurred to me it would make a good article for the blog.)

Talk to the activities director first for scheduling.  They can put you in a good slot,  and get the activities aides to notify the people who like your kind of music. This is especially true around Christmas- too many carolers just drop in!  Times like January are when they really need the people to come and entertain.

Play stuff you remember from your childhood, songs that were special to your family.  Share amusing stories associated with those songs.  Play as many old standards as you can, and as many songs suitable for singing along as you can.  Red River Valley, You Are My Sunshine, and Gene Autry (Back in the Saddle, Deep in the Heart of Texas) and Roy Rogers (Happy Trails To You) songs are GOLDEN.

In a nutshell, take them down "memory lane" as much as possible.   When not possible, alternate well known ones with less well known ones, and have less well known ones that allow you to say something about the times or that they can reminisce about.  For instance, I do "Movin' Day" ("Landlord said this mornin' to me..."), even though it's not a well known song, and use it to talk a little about the Depression.   Since I'm not old enough to have gone through it myself, I don't dwell on it, but I mention that my dad's family had a rough time of it then and that the Depression was something that shaped the lives of that generation.  Holiday songs when you're getting close to a particular holiday are good, too.  Patriotic songs are particularly good, and even the theme songs of the various armed services, since so many served in the military in that generation.

Various things that are fun for them to remember that you might weave into your "patter" and stories might be things like S&H Green Stamps or Blue Chip Stamps, various old cars including Studebakers, Ramblers, Edsels, finny Fifties cars, Model T's and Model A's, Burma Shave signs, tube radios, stuff like that.  Stuff from the Grand Old Opry and/or Hee Haw is usually good.

You aren't just entertaining them for an hour, you are giving them fodder for reminiscing on their own about good times, and people like their grandparents.   That, and the tunes in their heads can keep them happy for the rest of the day.   Staff have commented to me about how much easier the residents are to work with afterwards... it puts them in a good space, and gives them a respite from thinking about the hospital food, the treatments, the grumpy roommates, and even their aches and pains.

Don't assume that just because someone looks "out of it" that they are... sometimes people have conditions that don't allow them to control their expressions, but they can still track with you.  But it's easier for you if you find a few people in the audience that are obviously tracking with you, and make eye contact and tell the stories and sing the songs to THEM.  Be patient... interruptions happen, especially in hospital settings.  If someone brings in a therapy dog, roll with it and sing "Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?" or "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?" or your own favorite dog song, then funny stories about your dogs will be good too. Sometimes visitors come- nod and smile to them to make the feel welcome.... they will often sit with their loved one and enjoy watching Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa have fun getting taken down memory lane.  It gives them a break too, since they may be at a point where they want to spend time with their loved one, but have long since run out of things to say.   Think of yourself as Bob Hope doing a USO show.... it's all about boosting THEIR morale.

Since you play banjo, yeah a few banjo jokes are fine, but avoid ones that mention death or drool in the punchlines!  You might also explain the difference between different styles---  I mention  Grandpa Jones and Stringbean as playing Old Time clawhammer, Roy Clark as playing Bluegrass banjo, and Eddie Peabody as playing plectrum banjo.  Generally people will connect with stars, but I try to only to a particular stars top one or two hits, since then people who weren't particular fans of the star can still recognize and enjoy the songs.

Let them sing along- that's your cue that they are enjoying themselves and that you are singing the right songs.  If someone is singing particularly well, I like to point that out and give them recognition- it will make their day.

Most will remember the "folk boom" and This Land is Your Land and Cottonfields go over well.

Depending on the facility and how frequently you play, the need to vary your material isn't very great.... in hospitals, they may enjoy the same stories, jokes and songs every month or even every week, as long as the songs were good and the stories and jokes funny.    In one retirement home, I play four times a year, with two or three months in between, and they've forgotten what I did from the last time.  The poor aides probably haven't though!  But I'm not really doing it for them...

5 comments on “Playing In Retirement Homes and Convalescent Hospitals”

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 @4:11:00 PM

Thanks for this write up, I want to do this when I get good enough!

mainejohn Says:
Tuesday, December 2, 2014 @4:32:36 PM

You're in CA and I'm in Maine, and I've been pretty much following the same guidelines for years. I play 5 string and plectrum, yet find plectrum works better is this venue, at least for me (I played in a Kingston Trio type group in the early 60's in college, and later in a 4-string banjo band). I'm now finding that at age 71, I'm older than some of the patients.

banjopogo Says:
Thursday, December 4, 2014 @1:15:15 AM


You're welcome! You may be closer than you think.... if it's a facility with a low budget for activities, they may be desperate. If you have other talents, you could supplement your banjo playing/singing with those. Jokes, magic tricks, yo-yo tricks, juggling, animal imitations.. a lot of things would work. A one man variety show.
It's normal to think you have to get good enough to perform, but it also seems to work that you perform to get good enough to perform! Performing teaches you things you won't learn practicing, and among other things, it helps you TARGET your practice sessions to practical things you need to know. I started bring my fiddle when I started playing after a 15 year hiatus, and it put my fiddling on steroids.... I progressed farther and faster than I ever had before... I had a REASON to want to sound good and play my best.
In my estimation, 1 hour performing = 2 or 3 hours normal practicing.

"Great minds think alike?" ;^)
At least when confronted with the same situations.

I can see how plectrum would work well. I started having problems with acoustic guitar and switched to Baritone ukulele, and that has allowed me to do more Tin Pan Alley stuff. Plectrum would be great for that kind of stuff.

Even at age 62, I'm noticing more and more people my age who are in there because of car accidents or severe diabetes, among other things. I'm thinking I'm going to need to work up some Beatles tunes soon... actually, I've already started with them on the fiddle, but I've only played a few at gigs.

sneergrass Says:
Sunday, May 3, 2015 @12:26:18 AM

Inspiring article, Michael! Playing in the health and nurse industry for seniors and other people hospice bound is a GREAT way to cut your teeth playing out and sharing your talent... You're so right that even if some look like they are in outer space they are listening. Music is so therapeutic, by far the most grateful, attentive and loving crowds I have ever played for were retirement home gigs. I used to do it a whole bunch growing up before the band really grew feet... learned a lot, and though they didn't usually pay too much if anything at all--but every person that could and the nursing staff too would thank me when I was packing up... literally line up to personally shake my hand, tell me they loved the sound of banjos, etc... I remember thinking that first gig that while I was playing, I was actually annoying them and that they hated me, and that they were being forced to listen to some kid play banjo- I was nervous because they didn't clap or cheer after songs that much, and it seemed that the first two rows were getting closer and closer with their eyes locked on me, and the rows behind them weren't even paying attention it seemed... but afterwards what a response! It could take a good long time to case up because they didn't want me to leave or stop playing. I stayed for supper more than once. -- Just reading your article makes me want to reach out and book a few places that I used to play when I was green... It's nice to play "paying" gigs, but it's just as important to play ones that bring joy to the people listening- thanks for the inspiration man!

banjopogo Says:
Sunday, May 3, 2015 @10:46:32 PM

Thanks for sharing that, sneergrass!
Yeah, it's kind of strange in that you can't always read peoples' faces.

One lady that's going to be 100 later this month can't actually clap because one hand is twisted so bad by arthritis, but she pats the back of that hand with the other!
And yeah, it's fairly common to get delayed packing up because some appreciative person wants to interact!

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