With an audible lump in her throat, Christine Sandoval describes how an intergenerational program that encompasses storytelling, music, and songs in a collaborative process has brought joy and purpose to elders at the Santa Fe Care Center, a 120-bed skilled nursing facility in in Santa Fe, N.M. “Now I’m going to be a cry baby,” she says as her voice cracks. “It’s just that I’ve seen my elders’ lives change because of our involvement with the programs, and it’s been so empowering for them.”
Sandoval, who is the center’s activity director, explains that it all started with a visit from Molly Sturges, co-founder of The Academy for The Love of Learning’s innovative Lifesongs program, about nine years ago. “Molly came in one day and asked if she could start a songwriting group with the residents,” says Sandoval. “I was skeptical at first about whether the elders would be interested in it, but wanted to give it a chance. It started with about 20 people, and they really got into it, but then they slowly dropped out.” In the end, there were just three women in the group, all of whom were near the end of their lives — Juanita, Barbara and Mary.
But that small group would soon leave a powerful impression on everyone involved. Sturges and a colleague continued to work with the trio to create lyrics and songs. “I saw how it really allowed them to be individuals again,” says Sandoval. “Their experiences and their wisdom came up to the surface. What they could share was so meaningful.”
The project culminated in a standing-room-only performance at the center, where a local college choir sang the three women’s songs. Sturges recalls the performance as a powerful and beautiful event. At that point, she began to understand the power of what she and others had created. “There is such potency to expressing at the end of one’s life and when a young person sings that song,” she says, adding that everyone involved in the program cries. “You go to the concerts, and I think our hearts breathe a sigh of relief.”
An especially compelling aspect of Lifesongs is that it brings together “artist composers”—who serve as facilitators—and elders who are near the end of life. The facilitators work closely with elders in hospice or nursing homes to create musical pieces, some of which are performed each year by a multi-generational ensemble choir. “These original songs span diverse musical styles and touch on many universal life themes, and yet they are very personal pieces that give us an insight into experiences, relationships, and memories of great significance to the participating elders,” says Alysha Shaw, Lifesongs’ program coordinator.
The founding purpose of Lifesongs is working with people who are nearly removed from society, says Acushla Bastible, Lifesongs director and co-founder. “It’s for those individuals who have little opportunity to engage with rest of the world. We wanted to create a mechanism by which people could share their voices.”
Both Bastible and Sturges emphasize the importance of the exchange that elders and artist-composers have during the Lifesongs process. They are equally emphatic that extracting a story from an elder is not as important as making a connection and finding ground together.
Sturges explains that in practice this may mean that the facilitator could ask the elder what an ocean sounds like. If the elder isn’t sure, the facilitator, explains Sturges, may press a note on a keyboard until they both find the right sound.
“It’s probably the most meaningful part of the process,” says Bastible. “At the foundation of it is real connection. That’s why we work over several months and we don’t expedite it.”
After that first performance at the center, Sandoval says she realized that the elders were limited only by what she was offering them. “After seeing how it changed elders, I knew we had to continue working with them.”
The performances have become so popular that they’ve had to locate to larger and larger venues each year. “People just started coming,” says Sandoval. “Every time they have a performance, it’s standing room only.”
Also located in Santa Fe, the Academy is a nonprofit organization that offers workshops, retreats, and trainings with a mission to “awaken, enliven, nurture, and sustain the natural love of learning in people of all ages.” Its Lifesongs and Story Gathering programs are responsible for Sandoval’s praises.
Today, Santa Fe Care Center has more than two-dozen residents involved in both the Lifesongs and Story Gathering initiatives. “It’s metamorphosed into a community-wide initiative and it has touched so many people,” says Sandoval. The programs have had many positive effects on elders, she says, including increased self-esteem and reduced or eliminated psychotropic medications.
Sturges believes there is magic in coming together, being present with one another, and listening deeply to one another. “It is then that we can be truly be changed,” she says. “When we ‘other’ someone to the degree that we other elders at the end of their lives, we other ourselves, and that is a violence too great to bear.”
The Academy now works with 20 community partners (nursing homes and hospice centers), 132 elders, 165 students, 47 community artists, 21 composers and musicians, five care partners, and six schools and universities. The number of audience members to date: 5,000 and growing.
Do you live in Santa Fe? Join Dr. Bill Thomas on March 28 when his Age of Disruption 2016 Tour kicks off in Santa Fe at the New Mexico Museum of Art: www.drbillthomas.org/local/santa-fe-nm/
Visit ChangingAging.org’s Facebook page for a full gallery of photos featuring Lifesongs.