Christmas and the Gift of Music
Updated: Nov 24, 2019
Most of us have grown up singing Christmas songs - music can lift our hearts, especially at this time of year. At Premiere Group, community is at the heart of all we do which is why we are looking forward to Carol Singing again on 22nd December 2019. It's a simple plan - all are welcome join us, share song sheets and sing as we drive across Limassol in convoy to visit 3 Limassol Care Facilities for the elderly. I wanted to share a collection of thoughts I wrote from past years of carol singing with Premiere. I don't write every year, but when I do, it helps me to remember the special elderly residents that we were blessed to meet and sing for.
A special thanks to our Premiere Group carol singers today🤗. We met by Stephanis to visit the first ‘Home for the Elderly’ (yerokomeio). For the first time Kelley and her clan joined us; with Kelley being a music teacher (voice & piano) she kindly brought along her percussion collection: bongo, triangle, tambourine and sleigh bells which were soon distributed between the excited kids! One of our other long-time singers, Dora, also joined us for the first time 🙂
At the first Home we went to, the residents were scattered around, sitting on different sofas. I recognised one of the old ladies from 2 years ago. She was sitting in exactly the same spot as the previous years – I remembered her bright eyes- she was listening to a transistor radio. As we stood by the Christmas tree, she politely switched off her radio and beamed a smile at us as she waited for us to start. We started with a Greek Silent Night, going into the English verses. The rest listened intently, sometimes looking at us, sometimes not. Half-way through, another 2 old ladies slowly shuffled in on their zimmer frames and gave us a cheery wave as they made their way to their seats by the window. It really warmed my heart to see them enjoy the songs. I saw a few feet tapping, especially to 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas'.
When we finished our audience clapped and we went around to shake hands and wish them a Merry Christmas. The old lady from previous years said to me in Greek ‘Thank you for remembering us’. Another old gentleman, with blue eyes like Bing Crosby, held my hand and asked where we were from. I explained some of us were from Cyprus, and others were from England and USA, now living here.
As the 2nd care home had closed (which I only discovered yesterday when I was visiting to arrange our performance times), we drove onwards to the care home in Ayios Athanasios. It had 3 floors, so we started on the ground floor – it was a long room and the TV was on (a news broadcast). In past years, you have to make a split decision as to whether we can sing over the TV or ask them to turn the volume down. This was a time to sing anyway and project our voices over the newsreader. As we sang, I looked around – to my right were a group of wrinkled ladies, sitting in their chairs – a bit like a doctor’s waiting room. One lady had her leg in a bandage propped up on a chair, and as we sang Silent Night she drifted off to sleep – waking up again when we sang a more lively rendition of Joy to the World! Near to her were 3 ladies watching us solemnly, and next to them were another 2 old ladies watching the news instead of us – which is fine 🙂. Afterwards we greeted the residents one by one to say ‘Kales yiortes’ (Happy Holidays) – one old lady told me my hands were very cold! They were so grateful and each wished us a Merry Christmas as we shook hands.
The lady in charge told us there were more residents on upper and lower floors, so we went down the staircase to a smaller lounge. The TV was on there too, but not too loud. A lady in a wheelchair did not take much notice of us. Next to her, in a ‘U’ shape were more old people sitting in silence as a TV played in the background. There was a sight that made my heart stop – an old couple, sitting together – the lady looked very weak, thin and frail. Her husband sat next to her holding her hands as if trying to give her strength.. it was emotional... As we sang, one old lady appeared to know all the words to our English songs – wow I thought, maybe she’s from England.. a few songs later I realised she was copying us, and miming what words we were singing – bless.. the lady next to her had the sweetest smile as she listened – she seemed to enjoy Away in a Manger especially. Afterwards they politely clapped and as we went around the room, they held our hands as we talked. The frail old lady thanked us sincerely. It’s a different world in there. Reminded me of the Hotel California lyrics, where you can never leave....
Finally we went to the top floor.. there were many visitors sitting amongst the residents (one visitor filmed us on her iPhone). To the left, there was an old lady on a drip, who started crying when we sang.. further along two old ladies in a corner were carefully picking fluff off each others knee blankets. There was a little old bald man, who was so hunched over, he could only see his lap. To my delight, he looked up at us 3 times to see us with great effort. His face had the expression of a curious little boy – especially during White Christmas. As we spoke with them after.. even those who had suffered a stroke or had difficulty controlling their limbs made the effort to stretch out their hand as we went around shaking hands. And as another Christmas Day approaches, I hope the families of these precious old souls will spend time with their loved ones. Regardless if someone ends up in an expensive or basic care home (we saw both), loneliness affects us all – and music can touch us all. Thinking back on this afternoon, I realised it was a privilege to be in the presence of so many lifetimes in one room. Thank you to everyone who came – Sharon, Daniel, Mateus, Anoush, Alisa, Kelley, Andrew, Chloe, Angelo and Dora ❤️ Ps. One person who had a heart for the forgotten was our dear friend Clare Pattihis. I can’t believe it will be a year in January since she left us – I still expect her phone call asking, ‘when is the next Premiere carol singing?’ - she was such a steady supporter. I was in awe of Clare’s ability to walk fearlessly into an overwhelming or sad situation in these places and bring a smile to someone just because she was there, alongside another who needed hope. Does hope become more fragile as we get older? It can. If you could see the reaction to Christmas carols in these dull dreary homes, you would understand the power of music.
This year our singers were from Ireland, Wales, England, Scotland, Netherlands, Armenia, New Zealand, Cyprus and US. The old folk were so precious - I recognised a few faces from last year, including one old lady who was sitting in exactly the same spot with a cup of tea and biscuit (as if she hadn't moved). I remembered the same man with Down's Syndrome, now in his 50's; he's been there the last 6 years... As per tradition, he came and stood next to us and sang a totally different song at the top of his voice with a huge smile - bless him! :-) We were welcomed by some as family, holding our hands and a few kissed us in tears afterwards. My prayer for 2017 is that we will not forget the forgotten.
DECEMBER 2015 I never know what to expect walking through the doors, and each time I feel apprehensive because you know behind the doors is a place where people are living their last months and years. And each time the door opens and we look at each other,I feel joy for these precious lives - be it sitting in an alert yet sad state, in front of table with a tea and biscuit. Or others in another world, looking at their lap or picking at invisible fluff. We start to sing carols and something changes in them - some smile, some cry, some glance and then keep looking away. When we sing Silent Night in Greek, some sing with us. Others move to the melody. One lady reaches into thin air as if trying to shake hands with someone. Until I am in their place, I will never know how it feels to have a trapped mind, or a feeble body. Or to live in a world which moves at the speed of a wheelchair. After the songs, we walk around to give Christmas greetings. With age comes a straight-up honesty - like the old man who told me we sang too slow afterwards, or the dear lady who asked me what her name was, or another who cried her thanks - "what more can I say, you came to see us, thank you thank you." As we were on a mission - 3 singing appointments for set times, I was relieved the crazy rain of yesterday was gone. The 3rd home was a new one, and the most grand I'd seen (with aquariums) - inside were 3 separate floors each with its own lounge and a group of elderly, somehow reminding me of a class of ancient schoolchildren waiting for their teacher to arrive... I spotted a lady reading a book in her wheelchair. She looked British - speaking to her afterwards, it was true. Dianne introduced herself and said how lovely it was to hear English carols. Extremely well spoken and quick witted, Dianne told how her husband had been a pilot in the Red Arrows. Wish I could have spoken longer. So whether an old person lives in the most basic care home or the most posh, the reaction is the same - visitors are welcomed with gladness. __________________________________________________
I often have the urge to write about things which are important to me. Just wanted to share what we saw during carol singing yesterday around Limassol.
Elderly home 1 – Our first visit was in walking distance from our meeting point – when we arrived, the elderly residents were all seated in their common area, temperature very warm, nice staff. We sang through a medley of English carols - didn’t realise their TV would be blaring so we sang over it! When we sang the Greek version of Silent night I noticed one old lady do the sign of the cross and start to cry..bless.. After singing we walked around the room and shook hands with the residents one by one to wish them ‘Kala Christouyenna’ (Merry Christmas). An old gentleman thanked us in English and said how much everyone enjoys music. Another old lady by the door burst into tears when we held her hand, and gave us warm kisses. It was emotional…
Elderly home 2 - .. This was a huge place. As we walked in, we were approached by an old man who asked us if he should fetch the manager, his manner being that of an eager school boy, so sweet! To begin with, we sang our repertoire and received some applause. Some residents stared at us curiously while we sang, while others just stared at the ground or into the distance (about 4 of them were in wheelchairs). I recognised some of the residents from our last time here, and was still shocked to see a man of about 40 with Down’s syndrome – he seemed so out of place amongst the aged. He swayed along as we sang and had a huge smile on his face. As it’s such a big place, it’s like a labyrinth of corridors – the care staff took us to the bedrooms to sing for the bed-bound residents, who were in ‘cots’ (beds with side handles). We sang as we walked through the corridors and our 40 year old friend followed us singing a totally different song, bless, still with a big smile! We were welcomed inside some of the rooms, others it felt more appropriate to sing in the doorway. The reaction we got from those in beds were smiles, and mainly floods of tears – it’s very hard to sing when you’re trying to hold back your own tears, but somehow I did it. Most of their rooms had a collection of icons - one lady had big photos of her family up on the wall. All of the bedroom tables were filled with bottles of medication. Old age may make bodies hunched, limbs twisted and eyes blind but it does not remove the capacity of a heart to feel joy and love. One old lady remarked "Ooh your hands are cold" when I greeted her. Others wanted to know our names.
The third home was the most memorable. It was located on the outskirts of town. In the entrance was a small seating area. There was an elderly lady in a wheelchair sitting alone – her face lit up when she saw us (probably at the sight of us all wearing Santa hats!). We told her we had come to sing Christmas songs, and as we started she began to clap along. Gradually more residents slowly made their way to the entrance, to find out where the music was coming from. The lady in the wheelchair by now was closing her eyes and conducting us with her hands in the air, aww! It was nice to see a couple of relatives visiting who I presumed were their parents. An old Greek man shuffled in and told us, “There are more people in the common area, come and sing for them too!” So we finished singing for the lady, and as we each shook her hand she burst into tears and kissed us. The reactions we were getting seemed to suggest that it was not our singing that caused this, but the fact that these old folk did not get many visitors from the outside world…
We then went to the common area, and I have never seen so many old people in one space, all seated on sofa armchairs around the room. There was probably about 30 in total, ranging from age 60’s (some had suffered strokes) to some that look about a hundred years old They applauded for us, and I saw a couple more visitors sitting amongst the elderly. Looking around the room as we sang, some of our audience gazed at us intently, others were bent over and could only see their laps, there was a 30 year old guy in a wheelchair who looked like he had a form of muscular dystrophy – his limbs were so thin (it was a shocker) and he was ‘frozen’, unable to move in his wheelchair, another lady was blind in one eye and had the biggest smile as she conducted us. They were a lively bunch – at one point during ‘White Christmas’, an old lady at the back shouted ‘SIOBI!’ – which basically means ‘Be quiet!’, she was quickly "shhh’d" by the carers.. later on, an old man wheeled himself into the room, and interrupted us mid-song to shout, ‘Sing us some old songs!’.. (he meant old Greek songs) thing is, we didn’t know the Greek lyrics to anything expect Silent Night (note to self for next year – find them!), but it didn’t matter because this gent then sang with the most powerful voice, and conducted us as he led, while we la la’d along to him (Pai O Palios o Chronos/ Trigona calanda). He must have been a professional singer as he was so good!! When we’d finished singing his songs, he said to us, "Ok, continue with your songs now" – it was so funny! Everyone had a good laugh – what a character!
We went around the room again to greet them and say ‘Merry Christmas’. Looking into the faces of these old men and women I couldn’t help noticing how wise, sweet and beautiful their faces were. Some had lovely green or blue eyes, I could imagine how they were in their younger years. So… the day before Christmas Eve we saw only 4 visitors in homes that I’m guessing would house a combined total of 90 residents. I do hope they received family visitors at other times in the day… Special thanks to our singers Angela, David, Maura, Erin, Laura, Jean and Annie; for making Christmas extra special this year for the elderly. As one of our carol singers told me afterwards, “It was hard to do but oh so worth it”.