CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — DONALD HALL, 86, a former poet laureate, probably captured the general mood when he wrote that nursing homes are “old-folks storage bins” and “for-profit-making expiration dormitories.” He wants to die in his farmhouse in New Hampshire.
But I think that sounds pretty lonely. I wouldn’t mind going into a nursing home and not coming out. In due time, thank you. I’m 64.
My band, Yiddishe Cup, has been playing nursing homes regularly for decades. Last week, we got our first request for “Brown Eyed Girl.” The resident who asked for it was a stroke victim. “I never smoked and worked out regularly,” he said.
My musician friends and I generally focus on Tin Pan Alley tunes, like “Pennies from Heaven,” “All of Me” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” all from the ’30s. (I play clarinet and harmonica.) Last week, at Stone Gardens Assisted Living Residence in suburban Cleveland, we threw in the 1972 hit “Garden Party.” Our guitarist announced, “We’re playing Ricky Nelson’s ‘Garden Party’ live at the Garden!” Like Madison Square Garden. The baby boomer — the “Brown Eyed Girl” fan — got the joke.
My mother lived at Stone Gardens in the early 2000s. She liked her stay there. She could go to art classes, religious services, exercise classes and political discussion groups. (One nursing home had outings to strip clubs. A resident, now deceased, told me that.) My mother rarely complained about the “home.” Her one gripe was with the kosher food, so I took her periodically to Rally’s for cheeseburgers.
We used to play a lot of Jewish music (mostly traditional Yiddish and Hebrew songs) for her and her cohort back then. Now we go with 50-50 American/Jewish. Last week we added “Drift Away” — “Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.”
I first bought nursing home insurance at age 50 in 2000. That was when I put my mother in the home and realized she wasn’t coming out. (She died four years later in her bedroom. I was at her side.) I have kept up my yearly premiums ever since. After all, the Department of Health and Human Services reports that about 70 percent of people over 65 will need some type of long-term care during their lives.
My mother was in Suite 105 — a comfortable one bedroom. Now my elderly cousin Shony is in 105.
When I go to nursing homes, I’m the ambassador from the kingdom of youth. The residents are friendly but somewhat alien. Some don’t know what is going on outside. I report on the weather. I say: “Where are you going tonight? Come see us. It’s going to be standing room only!”
Violet, 98, likes our peppy songs, such as “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” Al, a retired lawyer and Navy veteran, requests “Deep Purple.” Another resident volunteers to sing a Yiddish song with us.
Who are you going to sing with if you live by yourself? Are you going to sing duets with your caregiver?
I may not be old yet, but 60-something is definitely a preview. At a Taco Bell recently, a high school boy plopped his book bag at my table, then his body in the seat next to me. Had I unwittingly sat at the cool-kid table in some floating school cafeteria? There were plenty of open seats in the restaurant. I realized I was invisible to the boy. I was old. “Whatever,” he said, placing his burrito wrapper two inches from me.
I thought about saying, “Young man, you are rude.” But “young man” and “rude” wouldn’t cut it, and I wasn’t young enough for “Dude!” As I left, I said, “Thanks for sharing your lunch break with me.” He smiled. I think he smiled. Maybe he smirked. I can’t read young people anymore.
Jim Guttmann, a jazz and klezmer musician from Boston who has toured the world, said his biggest thrill was playing nursing homes. Nursing home residents appreciated him the most.
I once read snippets of prose between songs at a nursing-home gig, where an old man in a wheelchair interrupted me: “Play music or sit down!” I was heckled, I was flustered, and I said, “I’ll sit down when you stand up!” That quieted him — and everybody else. I was rude. I was young then (50-something).
After many nursing home gigs, residents come up to the musicians and say: “You fellas sounded great. Thanks so much for the show. I knew your mother.” That last one gets my attention.
I’m number 105, my mom’s room. Baby boomers, take a number — and pay your premiums.
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James Gavin, journalist and author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker