Participatory Singing in Residential Care Homes
I have done a lot of work in care homes. It can be a challenge – more of a challenge than I had expected compared to community-based work. The residents often have high support needs of varying types. For example, there may be people in different stages of dementia, with different physical disabilities and frailty, as well as other factors such as literacy, language (can they speak English?), and other mental health problems such as bi-polar disorder or depression.
Often I am left to lead a participatory singing session with groups like this with no support from care staff. This is, as you can imagine, quite difficult, as participants need help to find page numbers, follow the words and reminders to sing and/or use hand percussion. There may also be disruptive group members who might, for example, sing loudly and completely out of time with the group, which other residents find disruptive and mars their enjoyment, or even participation of the session. This means that sessions can feel a little disjointed as often the groups are as large as 20+.
The Community-Based Singing Group
Having a cup of tea with some of the participants of a community-based group in the autumn, it emerged that they felt they wanted to give something back. They enjoyed singing so much that they wanted to share it with others. After a conversation with the manager of the church centre we use, we got a contact at a local residential care home. This residential care home is brand new and as such has limited local connections. They had been unable to secure any activities or entertainment for Christmas.
Around 12 participants of the community-based group came to a 1.5 hour session (with a break for tea and mince pies) at the resi care home. There were about 12 residents present and I think the enthusiasm of the visitors and the increased numbers of people around them helped them feel able to join in with the singing, especially with the actions. The residents were also assisted by the group to play hand percussion and the group were able to help find page numbers and amplify song requests on behalf of residents sitting near them.
From my point of view, I was able to concentrate on leading the music, secure in the knowledge that everyone was engaged in some way. This led to a more coherent session, with more singing, and smoother transitions between different activities. The increased numbers meant that although I couldn’t distinguish who was singing and who wasn’t from listening, I could relax a little and look around the room and see the different ways in which people were engaging. There was one resident who didn’t join in the singing until we sang Oh When The Saints.
Taking the group into the residential care home has made me reflect a lot on my practice in residential settings. Yes it would be great to have enthusiastic singers assisting at a session, and I hope I can develop a regular relationship with this care home, as so many from the group enjoyed the visit. However, it is also helping me rethink the way I work in residential care homes.
- Am I placing too much expectation on the residents to be able to work with my resources? (song book, hand percussion) In some cases yes, in others, no. And usually all in the same room.
- I place a high value on participative sessions, yet many resi care homes describe me as ‘the entertainer’ (“she’s going to sing to you” is how I’m often introduced) – what value is there in performing in residential care homes? Or mixing up the session so there is a combination?
- I want to challenge care home residents to make their own decisions and to take a little responsibility for participating. If I work to the lowest common denominator then will I simply be complicit in the institutionalisation of older people?
- How can I be sure the residents want to be in a singing workshop? The descriptor ‘captive audience’ is sadly no over-statement.
- I want to find ways of encouraging care staff to be involved in participative singing.