For the past five years, Alderson and her husband, Bob, have auditioned musicians and artists and trained them in how to share their talents and interact with seniors.
Today, they have a aggregation of 75 people available to perform for $25 per venue, far less than they could earn performing elsewhere.
On one Friday afternoon at All Seasons Adult Care in Scottsdale, folk harpist Tina Eaton’s lilting Irish singing caught a ride on the sounds she plucked out on a 31-string harp. All five ladies who live there held down “front-row seats,” beaming to such tunes as “Tura Lura Lura,” “The Sweetheart Tree,” “McNamara’s Band” and “You Are My Sunshine.” For more than an hour, Eaton weaved stories, her experiences, Irish charm and a careful mix of music to enchant her audience.
“Sometimes we get smiles where smiles don’t always come,” says Eaton. “We are talking about a season of life here with the seniors. Many of them are in pain, they are despairing with their conditions and life is very serious for them.”
Occasionally, Eaton’s 7-year-old daughter, Britani, trained in tap, jazz and ballet, will dance to the music.
All Seasons owner Melody Fox says she constantly looks for ways to enrich the lives of her five residents.
“Bridges across time and memory” is how Audrey Alderson describes her ministry to Valley seniors. When she turns her force of Audrey’s Angels loose on aging folks in 106 small adult care homes and 11 adult day care centers, they evoke joy, tapping feet and memories. Sometimes, the Angels’ music — delivered by guitar, piano, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and other instruments — triggers responses in residents with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia who may not stir otherwise when visitors bring something new.
“They may be older and unable to live alone, but they still want to have fun and enjoy themselves,” she says. So Friday afternoon has become a time they look forward to. That’s when Audrey’s Angels “will grace our doorstep and give us something special for the day,” she says.
Ninety-nine-year-old Mary Stoutland smiled and kept rhythm with her hands to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Anne Longo, 92, is a lifelong musician and sometimes plays her digital organ for her peers. But she says whatever the musical fare, “they are very entertaining, and the ladies all seem to like them.”
Audrey and Bob Alderson launched “Audrey’s Angels” (www.audreysangels.org) in November 2001. At the time, Bob’s father had Alzheimer’s disease, while Audrey’s aunt was in another home where its manager asked the couple whether they could help start singalongs. Audrey had retired from the staff of Paradise Valley United Methodist Church, and the idea of an arts ministry to seniors struck a chord.
“We believe that God has called us to make a difference,” says Alderson. “I felt God called me to do it, and I really didn’t want to do it. But God wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept saying, ‘You know a lot of people.’ ”
The affirmation she got from her church, backed by steady financial help, has sustained the program. “You would be surprised how many homes don’t have music,” she says. Small group homes typically cannot afford an activities director, and owners are reluctant to book entertainers who solicit them.
All Angels combine for 350 hours a month to the homes. That includes 31 small group homes that serve low-income residents. Angels reach more than 2,000 residents monthly, the majority in homes licensed for no more than 10 residents. The Angels have a waiting list, and Alderson wishes her musicians could reach out to all 1,600 small group homes in the Valley, but that would take additional funding.
At each visit, Eaton sings about 15 songs, laced with stories and encouragement. “Sometimes, it is nice to hear something soulful,” she says in introducing “Danny Boy.” “It is true to life, and that is what makes the joys so wonderful.”
Musicians are reminded that they are not called to the homes to give a performance.
“It’s not about them, it is about the residents” and stirring joy in them, says Alderson.
“Many times they are not able to respond,” says Eaton. “They may even be asleep. I believe there is a spirit inside of each person, the breath of life, and they are hearing.” She has watched how certain songs, especially gospel classics such as “Amazing Grace” and “Peace Like a River,” stir residents and bring them to attention.
Alderson says all her musicians can share stories how something they played, said or did produced heartening and remarkable responses that caught the attention of caregivers.
“Although we are faithbased, and everyone knows that I am a Christian, we do not preach any religion at all with our residents. In fact, we are very careful when we play hymns” and make sure it is OK with the owner.
In homes with Jewish residents, for example, musicians are furnished with Jewish songs to perform. There are two Jewish musicians in the Angels crew and one on the board of directors. Angels perform four times a month at the Jewishaffiliated Kivel Campus of Care nursing home in Phoenix, which has low-income residents, a special target of outreach.
Sprinkled among the Angels are people with puppets, a clown, those who engage seniors in arts and crafts, and some who come with karaoke machines. Senior homeowners aren’t shy about what Angels become favorites and are invited back, says Alderson.
Eaton, who takes her lap harp or large harp to homes up to three times a week, said she is repaid again and again in “beautiful smiles. Then,” she says, “you know your music is really doing things in the heart.”