“We have a very, very strong music program,” said Jordan Strohl.
Strohl is not a dean bragging about the strength of his conservatory. He does not run the theatre department at a university. No, he is the administrator at the Lillian Booth Actors Home, a nursing facility for aging theatre veterans in Englewood, NJ.
For the last four years, the Actors Home — which was created and is funded by the Actors Fund as a place where show people can retire — has used songs from musicals and the American Songbook to boost the well-being of its members who live with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The program is called “Get Together With Music,” and it occurs once a week.
“Music, we found, is something that is very therapeutic and has brought residents of all conditions together,” said Strohl.
Programs which employ music as mental and emotional therapy have been used in other nursing homes across the U.S. But they are particularly a natural fit for a place like the Booth home, where nearly all the residents hail from a theatre career and live and breathe show music the way other people breathe air.
“It’s better than the old-school bingo, or other things you would find in a facility like this,” said Strohl. “In the Actors Fund we really try to bring cutting-edge activities that would not be normal activities that you would find in your run-of-the-mill nursing facility.”
Musical selections vary from Gershwin to more modern musical composers, though titles from the musical theatre’s golden age predominate. Musicals recently showcased include Fiddler on the Roof, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, West Side Story, The Pajama Game, Annie, The Most Happy Fella, Damn Yankees and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Often the program is reflective of the men and women who are living at the Booth at the time.
“A lot of it is driven by the residents,” said Strohl. “When a new resident comes into the facility, we try to figure out what shows they were part of, whether it be as a performer or stagehand, and we try to make sure to put that on the list.”
Strohl said a jolt of familiar melody can make all the difference in a resident’s behavior and outlook.
“It’s amazing to hear people who, at one moment, when you’re trying to engage them in conversation, they don’t know what day of the week it is,” he stated. “Then two seconds later they’re singing a song from a show that either they were a lead in 34 years ago, or a song that had a lot of meaning in their lives 30 years ago, and they know the words like it was yesterday. We’ve seen music bring people together across a broad spectrum, and it’s been very therapeutic for everyone.”
While a full-throated go-round with Oklahoma! or My Fair Lady may not necessarily reset their mental faculties back to the time when the singers first heard those scores, it helps in other measurable ways.
“We’ve seen, from our perspective, our residents — maybe their memory has not improved, but their overall health and their overall personality improve,” said Strohl. “Someone who could be very depressed, someone with mental illness, they’re coming into the facility and being engaged in these type of programs. It’s night and day. You see them wake.”
The Actors Home uses other arts-related programs as well to help members with Alzheimer’s or dementia. One, Drum Circle, gives residents access to percussion instruments. They may not have ever been trained in playing the drums or cymbals, but they can bang away at them anyway. In another program, Time Slips, residents try to guess at the nature of an action depicted is in picture.
In some cases, residents help their neighbors through a dose of music. In residence at the Actors Home is Joan Stein, a 92-year-old who once worked on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.” She now teaches others how to tickle the ivories.
“There are some residents who have learned to play the piano at the young age of 84,” said Strohl.