In early March, the “Life Enrichment Director” of a new senior care facility asked me to play the piano for their Friday afternoon happy hour. From 3:15-3:45, she requested.
When I arrived, a corporate type standing just inside the front entrance took me to the activities room. On the way, he raved about their donated piano. Then I saw the instrument: an old spinet placed against an outside wall. The white keys sat unevenly—some raised, some sunken—creating a jagged landscape I knew would be a challenge. I wasn’t surprised when I played a few notes and heard a tone harsh enough to make your ears bleed. The room was small, typically institutional, with tiled floor, square metal tables and chairs, and window blinds instead of curtains. All hard surfaces that would do nothing to mellow that piano. Oh, well.
I’d been told ahead of time about the Mardi Gras theme for the day. Sequined masks and bright, beaded necklaces rested in the middle of each of the ten tables crammed into the space. I’d spent quite a bit of time selecting music to fit the theme: “Basin Street Blues,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”
The first audience member arrived, a woman from the memory-care wing, who was wheeled in and left with me, while the young aide went to retrieve more residents from their rooms. I introduced myself to my lone listener, who looked frightened and confused, and not at all convinced that being there was a good idea. She quickly decided the music was too loud, and wanted to leave. Staff cajoled her into staying, but truly she never had much choice in the matter. They placated her with a cup of coffee and a crab cake, along with promises of “nice piano music.”
Next three maintenance men showed up for their afternoon break, eager to take advantage of the free beer and food. They leaned back, balancing on the rear legs of their chairs, fingers interlaced behind their heads, enjoying a bull session. The noise level around me started to rise. Then a handful of assisted-living residents shuffled in, some accompanied by their adult children. The facility had only been open for a couple of weeks, and many families were on site, helping their loved ones get settled. The volume ramped up another notch. Relatives carried on with the kind of forced levity you often hear when people address children or the elderly. Isn’t this fun, Dad? Maybe I’ll move in here, too. A visitor lifted her beer in a toast. What do you think now, Mom? Assisted living isn’t so bad, is it?
Eventually, the din rose to such a level that I’m not sure anyone could even hear the piano, although they clapped enthusiastically when I stood to leave. I ended up playing until well past 4 pm. Because everyone knows a proper happy hour doesn’t last from 3:15-3:45.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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