The Old Grey Mare: Part 1

August 3, 2011

I have such respect for the elderly. I work with well elders (elders without significant health problems), elders in nursing homes, elders in traditional assisted living facilities, elders in geri-psych units, elders with various forms of dementia…the list goes on. It’s safe to say that in the five years that I have been a Board Certified Music Therapist, I have become somewhat of an expert regarding the aging population. Their diseases, their musical tastes, and their general distaste at being treated as if they were children, are almost second nature to me.

Part of my job is to supervise undergraduate music therapy students during their school year in hands-on, required clinical training. I love the supervisor “hat” and it may be the highlight of my career. I help students learn, improve, and get to really use MT techniques. They come to my sites for 11-13 weeks, and for the last several weeks, they usually are leading entire sessions on their own with my elderly clients, and grow quite attached. They’re not the only ones. Particularly at the nursing homes, the clients (most of whom aren’t suffering from severe dementia) look forward to each student’s visit and when the semester is over, they find it difficult to let go. Those students are literally the high point in my clients’ days.

In my experience, elders like to be around young people because it makes them feel younger, and healthier, and more full of life. They often say things in sessions that would turn their children’s faces bright red, and during discussions, they surprise me by how well they have adapted to today’s societal norms. When we (the young people) aren’t there anymore though, reality often sinks way in.

When one is lucid, can have coherent conversations, and is aware of their declining health, it can be very depressing for them to realize that after our session is over, they must sit with themselves again, often alone, and either dwell on the past, on current aches and pains, or even negative prognoses, and play the waiting game. When a client is emotionally ready to “go,” but their body isn’t finished yet, what can we do, as therapists, to make their time easier AFTER sessions are over, and BEFORE they are able to travel to the great beyond…

I find the Patch Adams school of thought to be very helpful in cases like these. I validate their aggravation, pain, suffering and displeasure at being “old,” and we talk about those things, but then we sometimes go in a different direction. I begin discussions with my elders about the circle of life, about the Earth’s (and our own) natural and perpetual changes, the thousands of generations who experienced the same things, and then we explore the humor in certain unavoidable shared experiences. Ten elderly clients in my groups discuss their various ailments and are always amused and calmed by the fact that everyone is in the same boat. I use a songwriting exercise based on the song “The Old Grey Mare” (she ain’t what she used to be) and encourage the clients to think of things that have changed for them over the years. Through their sometimes hilarious suggestions, they often find companionship and understanding from others, which they might have forgotten existed. They get a reminder that they aren’t alone, and that it’s okay to laugh about a bladder that “aint what it used to be,” or the fact that hair is growing in places it never did before, or even that computers seem to be taking over our brains. It’s a time when humor can be a valuable coping mechanism for folks who have very little in that department, but it’s not always appropriate.

Today, at the end of a session at an SNF, a client’s daughter, who often joins the group with her 96 year-old mother, began talking about how her mother, A., is the “only one left” of all of her friends and family. This is where humor, and my “Old Grey Mare” won’t work, but it was amazing what happened. Every person (who could hear) added a thought or theory about how they deal with loss and loneliness, and we had a meaningful conversation about living “in the now,” as client, L. shared, and not dwelling on things we can’t change. L. is a client who admits to being much nicer and more patient now than she was as a younger person, and presently, she lights up a room with her good attitude (despite hardship and a stroke which left the left side of her body paralyzed) and I believe she copes with her current condition by creating community and friendship whenever she can. Being in the moment is an umbrella that humor is safe underneath, I realize.

We finished the group very differently than how we began it. I’m not a religious person, and “God” isn’t necessarily a part of my life, but here’s what my clients needed at the time:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Que Sera, Sera.

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2 Responses to “The Old Grey Mare: Part 1”

  1. Emily Holleran said

    Great story! I have heard so many school aged teens describe “old people” and express discomfort or promote stereotypes. I think kids and young adults who are uncomfortable around elderly people would benefit from learning what you have – that people of all ages can enjoy time together. Look forward to reading more!

    • Emily – it is interesting how uncomfortable older kids and teens can feel around elderly people, isn’t it? There are so many reasons that I think this happens, and it’s possible that at the moment, it’s because there’s such a giant cultural chasm between the generations. When our parents are older, I’m not sure it will be quite as uncomfortable for our kids to be around them, and it may be even less of an issue when we’re old (because we’re so cool…). There is such a huge difference in ideals and values between today’s old folks and the tweens and teens today! Maybe if we got elderly people interested in texting and YouTube…

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