By Christina Britton Conroy
When I was twenty-seven, my sixty-year-old mother died of cancer. I was left to care for my temperamental, over-controlling, eighty-year-old father. While grieving for my mother, I was also angry with her for dying young. Taking care of her elderly husband was supposed to have been her job, not mine.
Dad was bored, lonely, and wanted me to come over daily. I was a fulltime musical theatre performer struggling to build a career, find a husband, and a start a family of my own. An aging father did not fit into that equation.
We had never had fun together, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I finally figured out that the only thing he enjoyed was talking about himself. I didn’t know it, but reminiscing with him was the start of my work as a Creative Arts Therapist.
I bought Dad a small cassette tape recorder and he recorded his stories. Every time he held a finished tape in his hand, he felt happily fulfilled. He died peacefully at the age of 92.
The next Christmas, I was hired to sing carols at a nursing home. I took my small Irish harp and entertained a half-dozen residents at a time in several locations around the building.
Unlike singing on a stage with a faceless audience in the dark, these few, frail people stared vacantly. I started singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Suddenly, like wilted flowers given water, they seemed to bloom with new life. Shouting out the lyrics, they sat up singing with pure joy. For the first time, I realized that music could be much more than just entertainment.
That night changed my life. I applied, auditioned, and was accepted into NYU’s Music Therapy Master's Degree program.
Years later, I was the director of a senior center for the well-elderly. One member was 67-year-old Bill, crippled from polio and wearing leg-braces. He had never attended academic school, but only a trade school where he learned make costume jewelry. He was shy and bored, had little musical ability, but enjoyed singing in my chorus, and playing in musical improvisation sessions.
After about a year of improvising, Bill and a few other center members asked me to start a band. Shocked, but intrigued, I carefully explained that playing “real music,” meant they had to learn to play musical instruments. They were still adamant, so the band was formed.
Bill played the bass drum, loved it, and his self-esteem grew. He became so proud of himself; he volunteered to teach a jewelry-making class. Before long, his two-dozen elderly students opened a store and were selling jewelry. The sales made money for the center, and he was suddenly a very important guy. If Bill had never tried playing a drum, he might never have gained the personal confidence to teach a jewelry-making class, rediscover his old passion, and create a product that benefitted so many.
Learning a new skill can rekindle passion in an old one. Sharing a passion, can ignite passionate joy in others.
"To all adult children, caregivers, professionals read this book! Conroy's approach aligns with 'Positive Psychology' – focusing on one's passions and strengths.
Gerald Solk, Ph.D., CUNY, Psychologist, Gracie square Hospital
"…an insightful, unique approach to helping people cope with the demands of dealing with the elderly."
John J. Daly, M.D., NYC Police Surgeon, St. Vincent's Hospital, NYC
"…social workers, nursing home and community center staffers, psychologists and family members… could all benefit from this information."
Judy Foust, R.N., U.S. Army Hospital, retired, Low Vision Specialist, Lighthouse, NYC
About the Author
Christina Britton Conroy, M.A., L.C.A.T., C.M.T. is the founder and Executive Director of Music Gives Life, bringing musical performing into the lives of senior citizens. Many of her elderly showstoppers, ages 60- 101, never performed in public before joining Christina’s program. NY1 - TV NEWS named them NYers of the Week. A former senior center director, nursing home music therapist, and primary caregiver for two elderly family members, Christina has unique insights into the joys and frustrations shared by geriatric patients and their caregivers. Also a classically trained musician/actor, Christina toured the world performing musical theatre. She lives in Greenwich Village, NYC with her husband, actor/media-coach/cartoonist Larry Conroy.