Golden Oldies

Retirement-home performers strike a harmonious note with residents
Photograph by Roy Ritchie

Joel Palmer, a slim 40-something outfitted in a cool black suit, red vest, and tie, sets up his speakers and tunes his guitar as the audience files in very slowly.

Some of his fans maneuver wheelchairs. Others walk with the assistance of walkers or canes. Most are gray- or white-haired and a bit stooped — not surprisingly, since the median age is 85-plus. But they’re ready to party.

Palmer, who has been here before at the Norma Jean and Edward Meer Jewish Apartments, a senior residence in West Bloomfield Township, reintroduces himself to the crowd of about 70. After a little kibitzing, he breaks into his opening song, “Taking a Chance on Love.” A few toes are tapping and several downy-haired heads are nodding as he segues into “You Made Me Love You.”

Palmer is one of a small corps of singers, musicians, and dancers who regularly entertain at Meer and other senior residences around metro Detroit. Naturally, their meat-and-potatoes playlist draws heavily from the past — real oldies, from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

“This is all I do now,” says Palmer, a professional musician who formerly played such clubs as The Ark in Ann Arbor. For the last three years, he’s been playing gigs at nursing homes, senior residences, and assisted-living facilities as far away as Muskegon, Frankenmuth, and Toledo.

“I’d rather play retirement communities than a fancy nightclub; the people are wonderful,” Palmer says. “I play Gershwin, Cole Porter. I have 10,000 songs, and I love what I do.”

The feeling is mutual. Rose Bankler, 89, who has been a Meer resident for seven years, says she’s seen Palmer before, but it’s always “nice to hear the old songs.”
Margaret Snider, who is 92, gave the show a thumbs-up, rating it “very nice.”

“They have wonderful entertainment here,” Snider says. “I look forward to it.”

Diane Caskey, the activities coordinator at Meer, beams as people begin to nod and clap to Palmer’s upbeat rendition of “I Got Rhythm.”

“The residents love the entertainment,” for which they pay extra, says Caskey. She says acts like Palmer’s appear about every six months, “or people may say ‘enough is enough.’ ” They play for about an hour, she says. “The residents are ready to go then.”

They have live entertainment at Meer several times a month. Senior-living apartments, nursing homes, and similar facilities are required to have activities for residents, pastimes such as crafts and card games. But not all homes bring in entertainers.

“Music is a very important part of the residents’ lives,” says Janet Antin, program director at the Fleischmann Residence, another senior apartment complex in West Bloomfield Township. “It’s a universal language that unites cultures and age brackets.”

Most senior facilities maintain lists of entertainers — some paid, some volunteer, Antin says. They vary from klezmer bands to school choirs to dancers, opera singers, comics, and musicians.

Carl and Delores Walker, a dance team, are big on the senior circuit, activity directors say. They play recorded music, do some ballroom dancing, and get the elderly up on their feet.

“Some of them dance with walkers and sticks,” Carl says. “We hold them and walk with them, get them out of wheelchairs; we do lots of line dances.”
Back in the days when Carl was working, Delores and Carl would go dancing four nights a week. When Carl retired, dancing for the elderly seemed a natural. The couple have been at it for 10 years now, Carl says, playing about 30 homes a month, from St. Clair Shores to Southfield.

Sometimes, the elderly leave their rooms only when entertainers show up, Carl says. One fan at a Shelby Township nursing home dresses up and applies makeup, removes her oxygen tube, gets out of her wheelchair, and sits at a table when the dance team arrives.

“When we do an event,” Carl says, “everybody dances.”

Phil Gram, an 81-year-old professional drummer who has been playing senior facilities for about 25 years with a couple of his old band mates, says, “It’s not just about the music, but rapport with residents. We talk with them, become companions. They’re not all Mother McCree.”

Marcia Mittelman, administrator of the Meer Apartments, says the entertainment is aimed at enhancing the residents’ quality of life. “Life should have fun and have meaning,” she says. “We all know that music is universal. We can all relate, no matter your background.”

Melissa Houston, recreation director at the Woodward Hills Nursing Center in Bloomfield Hills, says the “entertainment programs are our biggest draw.” The dancing Walkers are popular there, she says, as is Russ Allgaier, who plays piano with one hand and trumpet with the other.

“It’s an honor to do this,” says Allgaier, who is a relatively young 54. “I enjoy it very much; I get to make people happy. Some people are so depressed, and I come in and cheer them up. Afterward, they come up and talk to me.”

Back at Meer, Joel Palmer winds up his show with a rousing version of “New York, New York.” Soon, several women form a chorus line and are kicking up about 300 years worth of leg. “This is my purpose in life,” says Palmer. “Bringing joy.”

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