When The Zimmers released their hit version of The Who’s My Generation in May they had a glint in their eye when they got to the line “hope I die before I get old”. Despite an average age of 75 – and a 90-year-old lead singer – they rejected the tag “elderly”. And though they might be a bit more rock ‘n’ roll than some of their contemporaries, The Zimmers do reflect a trend towards people feeling older later.
Eighty is the new 70 and when it comes to musical tastes today’s “older” generation are not afraid to tell you what they want – what they really, really want.
Day centres and care homes that offer musical entertainment have had to dance to a new tune and the days when staff could shove on any old Vera Lynn CD or Yes, We Have No Bananas are virtually over.
According to Marion Bulkan, voluntary entertainment organiser at Jewish Care’s Edgware and Harrow day centre in London, service users are increasingly sophisticated.
“Our entertainment is musical and these days it has to be of a professional standard. I organise four shows a week, mainly for 80-95-year-olds who like everything from Robbie Williams to Sinatra and Elvis and songs from the West End shows. If they like it they join in or get up and dance. If they don’t they start talking or just walk out.”
Like so many day care providers, Jewish Care is struggling financially so entertainment can be subsidised by families who “sponsor” it on a relative’s birthday.
Bulkan says: “A decade ago you could get entertainers who would turn out for £10 or £15 but that just doesn’t happen any more. Now I use the organisation Live Music Now to find people. The standard is excellent and they give us one free concert a year.”
The charity Music in Hospitals, which also provides entertainers for day centres and care homes, has a pool of 300 musicians across the UK. Its chief executive, Diana Greenman, says the charity holds auditions to ensure they recruit the right performers.
“Of course we look for people with a breadth of repertoire that reflects their audience’s tastes. But equally important are communication skills so they can reach out to people and make them feel they are performing just for them.”
Music in Hospitals organises 4,000 shows a year and works closely with staff in all care settings to tailor the concerts to older people’s needs. Greenman says: “We’ve certainly had to keep adapting since we were set up in 1948. We used to play a lot of Vera Lynn as people liked her but these days they are more likely to want to hear the Beatles.”
One of the largest providers is BUPA which has 300 care homes. Head of activities Tim Brooke says of its 21,000 residents, only one has an iPod. “I guess it’s only a matter of time before more do and as an organisation we will have to respond to that.
“At the moment we’re still on CDs which people tend to put on over lunch – usually some classical music.”
Over the summer Brooke organised a “Mediterranean cruise” event when homes decked out their dining areas like cruise liners. The residents tried the cuisine and the music of a different “port”, starting in Liverpool and travelling to Bordeaux (cue the theme from ‘Allo Allo), Barcelona, Venice, Athens and Casablanca.
Staff compiled a six-track CD for each “stopover” but, because of copyright laws, the music in Liverpool was only “Beatles-like” rather than the real thing. But Brooke adds that most residents prefer live music to recorded and music boxes with instruments to encourage residents to make their own entertainment are popular.
Brooke says: “We have three bandings of residential, nursing and dementia. Residents in the latter category often have poor short-term memory but good long-term memory so they tend to go for the older songs more.”
Sunrise Senior Living homes have separate “reminiscence neighbourhoods” for older people with dementia. Aileen Nimmo, director of community relations, says staff have to work harder to keep the attention of residents with memory loss when entertainment is laid on. “We organise five activities a day including musical entertainment and the idea is that every one of our residents will like at least one of them.
“With music it’s sometimes surprising what they go for – everything from Streisand to Shostakovich and Ray Charles to Rachmaninoff. They play CDs in the bistro area all day – people can take one from the rack or put on one of their own. This is meant to be home from home so it’s all about choice.”
Clearly, music is important to many older people and tastes vary so widely that staff cannot afford to make assumptions about what people will like. It’s also important to know when not to play music, says Anabel Meredith, social care development manager at the Tor Christian nursing home in Scotland.
“Although we have visiting musicians who are part of the social care team, it’s important to remember that silence is not a gap to be filled at all costs.”
Whether The Zimmers would agree with that remains to be seen.
We asked you, as the care home residents and day centre users of the future, to tell us what you would like as the sound track to your autumn years.
Your top 10 goes something like this
1. When I’m 64 – The Beatles
Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
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This article appeared in the 6 September issue under the headline “Let me entertain you”