Last year I played the piano for a Mother’s Day tea at an assisted living home. The idea was for families to drop by and enjoy a cup of tea and a visit, while I provided soft background music for ambience. Sadly, very few family members showed up, leaving the mothers with just each other for company. We all tried to make the best of it.
As I played “M-O-T-H-E-R” (1915) and “That Wonderful Mother of Mine” (1918), I thought of my emotional moment with Bill. When I first started volunteering in retirement and nursing home settings, I wondered why songs from the 1910s and 20s had so much appeal. After all, at that time my elderly listeners were either not yet born or in the first few years of their lives. Some of the songs of that era were revived in movies during the film heyday of the 1940s, but the more important reason my audiences know and love those pre-1930 songs is this: the music reminds them of their parents, especially their mothers. Bill was just one of many who have told me so.
Ned often reminisces about growing up in the country, with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and very little in the way of entertainment. But his family had a beat-up piano—which he says they had no money to tune—and both his mother and brother played. Ned added harmonica to the mix, and they spent many happy evenings making music together.
Rhoda told me she knew all the old songs because as a little girl she sat next to her mother at the piano. Rhoda wanted to play, too, but her mother was left-handed, and claimed a leftie couldn’t teach anyone the piano. (A rather imaginative excuse, I think.) Instead, Rhoda learned the clarinet at school. The girls weren’t allowed to march in the band, though. Rhoda still sounds a little bitter about that.
Bernie is a sweet man in his mid-90s who always brings his wife to my programs. He carefully positions her wheelchair away from the drafty entryway and tucks her in with a blanket. He’s fond of songs from the turn of the twentieth century because he recalls his mother singing them while she ironed—a cappella at first. Later, Bernie’s brother had a job restocking jukeboxes. He was allowed to bring home the worn-out records when he swapped them for new hits, and his mother updated her repertoire as she sang along with their Victrola.
It turns out reliving the past can be good for mental health, according to research reported in The New York Times last year. Professor Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton in England went through a time of intense nostalgia for his previous home at the University of North Carolina. And surprisingly, indulging in nostalgia made him feel better. So good, in fact, that he pioneered a field of study: the emotional effects of reminiscing, especially among older adults.
The researchers found that nostalgizing, as they call it, can be bittersweet. But on balance, the good outweighs the bad. The trick, especially for those in nursing homes, is not to take a “those were the days” view, but rather “What has my life meant?”
Interesting for me was how Sedikides and his team used vintage music to induce nostalgia in the seniors they studied, who afterwards reported feeling “loved” and that “life is worth living.”
And maybe a few of them missed their mothers, too.
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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