A group of performers and musicians enters a nursing home, often greeting residents individually, by name. When they start to play, the effect is transformative. Some clap their hands. Others sing along. Everyone is moved.
The performance has benefits even after performers leave—social interaction increases, memories of the past are brought back to active thought, emotions are positive, and residents look forward to the next performance. “They look forward to the events just as if they were going out for a night on the town,” says one facility’s program director, in response to a survey.
The Merrymakers Association
The Merrymakers Association was founded in 1986 by Jim Johnson, a retired musician from Blair, Nebraska. Johnson saw a need for free entertainment at nursing homes after realizing that many performers are only available during the evening and that professional entertainment can be costly. Johnson contacted businesspeople in the Omaha area, looking for donations to reimburse performers for travel time and performances. In its first year, Merrymakers served eight nursing homes.
Now, Merrymakers Association serves 140 nursing facilities in Nebraska and Iowa. Their annual Toast honorees are a snapshot of “who’s who” in Nebraska. With a roster of 20 professional performers, one of whom, Billy Troy, has been nominated for a prestigious Grammy award. Merrymakers holds over 1,600 performances annually, with over 50,000 hours of direct contact with seniors in 2017.
Every entertainer has a handful of stories that he or she loves to share. Sandy Lemke, the executive director of Merrymakers Association, shared an anecdote of a performer who received a request from a resident and asked permission to hold the resident’s hand while he sang. He then went on with the performance. The resident passed away during the performance, but weeks later, her children called Merrymakers and asked the name of the performer and the song. The resident’s child told Merrymakers that that was their parents’ song. “Thank you,” they said. “You sent my mom home to my dad.”
“At one performance, a gentleman started singing and clapping, which is a normal occurrence at Merrymakers performances,” Lemke says. “The activity director in the room started crying. When we asked what was wrong, the activity director responded that the gentleman who was singing and clapping had not had any social interaction with anyone in a very long time. The music must have stirred some memories for him and brought him joy!”
“It just tells you that you’re doing things right when the music touches the soul,” Lemke says.
The “Typical” Performance
Merrymakers performers tailor their performances to the audience to make their performances as personal and special as possible.
“I can say that there just isn’t a ‘typical’ performance,” says performer Kim Eames. “I set up my performance before I leave [for the nursing home] each day, but I might find someone who may have just lost a spouse or child and then a different song may be needed. Something may be going on in the country and a patriotic song is needed to boost a mood. I find a gal who loves Patsy Cline… I will throw in a few of those songs for that performance. I just try to gear the hour the way the audience tells me. But, each and every day I try to cheer a mood, see a smile on the saddest face and bring a laugh to what may be a lonely day. And the love and gratitude that we get back—priceless!”
“We evaluate our audience and the age level and gravitate to songs we feel they would know and hopefully bring back some great memories,” says Diana Sapp of The Links. “We also encourage them to dance, sing and play our rhythm instruments along with us. This really seems to draw them in and they have a lot more fun participating rather than just sitting and listening. The big thing that remains constant is getting them to have fun with us and engage them as best we can.”
Not only do Merrymakers entertainers adapt each performance to the situation, they are professional and perform at a high level of technique. They range in age from a recent college graduate to an 83-year-old. Many Merrymakers performers are recording artists who have toured both locally and nationally. It takes a warming personality and the ability to interact well with nursing home residents and staff, even when under pressure, to be a Merrymaker. Many performers try to learn the names of each resident.
“Our entertainers don’t just go up and sing in front of people. They get to know them. They interact,” says Sandy Parker.
The Music Selection
Since musical tastes evolve over time and residents at nursing homes are also getting younger, there is now a demand for music from the ‘60s and ‘70s as well.
“I laugh because the music I used to sing seems to be getting younger and younger… or I am getting older and older,” says Eames. “I try to bring a little of each kind of music to every show. In my almost 14 years with Merrymakers, I am getting more requests for the ‘60s, but still have a need for the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Jim Johnson, Merrymakers Association Founder
Hal Daub, who knew Jim Johnson personally, says that Johnson had a history of service. Daub met Johnson through the Nebraska Heart Association, which would later become part of the American Heart Association. At the time, Johnson was the executive director of the Nebraska Heart Association. Johnson was invested in providing resources not just for medical support, but also for education and social support, helping families and caregivers to understand illnesses and provide better care. Daub naturally also became involved in Merrymakers.
“He liked bringing joy to people’s hearts,” Daub says about Johnson. “He liked creating interest in the activity. When you may be infirm, but your heart can dance, and your mind can dance, and your eyes can dance—you may be in a wheelchair or confined to your bed, but the ability to sing along, or to clap, or watch others’ merriment, can make you feel life isn’t so bad.”
“He was a very kind person, very interested in the environment that would help people better enjoy their lives,” Daub continued. “He could always tell when you were down and would bring fun and humor to a tense situation.”
“He never sought the spotlight. He was more interested in people and getting things done,” Daub says.
To find out more about the Merrymakers Association, visit https://merrymakers.org/. To donate to Merrymakers in this year’s Omaha Gives, visit https://www.omahagives.org/merrymakers/overview this May 23.
To read another story about music’s value in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, visit http://www.mcknights.com/guest-columns/all-we-have-is-today-music-therapy-at-the-end-of-life/article/752770/.