Patricia Hammond sings for the elderly, usually in nursing homes. It’s a unique and demanding profession, but the rewards, she writes, are immense.

Ms. Hammond writes about the pleasures–and trials–of caring for those near death. In many ways, they’re irascible. Residents tell her to shut up. Others complain about their neighbors. And you never know what they will be in the mood for. Often, exactly the song or words that you’d expect would be the least desired in a home for the elderly, those are the ones most cherished. She writes:

It’s difficult to know which songs will work and which songs to avoid. Some seem terribly inappropriate. Take Smilin’ Through. It’s pleasant and many people know it. It has three verses, but the third one is optional – it was added after the song had been published in 1919 as a response to its huge popularity. This third verse goes: ‘And if ever I’m left in this world all alone / I shall wait for my call patiently / If the heavens be kind / I shall wake there to find / Those two eyes of blue / Still smilin’ through / At me.’

About 90 per cent of the residents of retirement homes are widows. I sang Smilin’ Through for the first time at a home in Sheffield, and finished with the second verse because I thought the third would be too painful, at which the pianist did a very pretty ritardando and I prepared to bow. But the whole room continued, a cappella, ‘And if ever I’m left in this world all alone…’

I have never omitted that verse again. It’s every widow’s favourite part of the song.

And then there is the power of music to bring forth life:

By far the most rewarding aspect of these concerts are the miracles. In the basement lounge at Happy Valleys Lodge in south Wales I sang If I Knew You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Cake to 15 grey-faced people in wheelchairs. Nobody clapped along. I tried Schubert’s Ave Maria. No reaction. I did Alice Blue Gown, fresh from my success with Elsie. I was all by myself at the chorus. Then I took out Yours: ‘Yours till the stars lose their glory / Yours till the birds fail to sing / Yours till the end of life’s story, / This pledge to you, dear, / I bring…’

Suddenly a man in the second row, his 6ft-plus frame slumped in a wheelchair, lifted his head and started to sing in a powerful baritone. The sound of his voice resonated through the building and galvanised the audience. Not wanting to lose the mood, the pianist and I repeated the chorus. More voices joined in. After Yours we did Love’s Old Sweet Song; One Day When We Were Young; Danny Boy; Avalon. The large baritone sang every one.

I wondered why the room had filled with nurses and carers until a fellow sitting beside the man explained, ‘Bill hasn’t spoken in five years.’

I’ve never seen this, but I have seen the pleasure in a nursing home when someone offers a piece of entertainment, something a little out of the ordinary. I accompanied my brother once to a home where he played old rag time songs on the piano. The residents were beyond thrilled. And one of my hospice patients loved when I would take him outside in his wheel chair. I strolled with him through the gardens, and he seemed his happiest and most contented.

Ms. Hammond was also able to spend time singing to her father in the last days of his life. He was suffering terribly, she says,

Even the most experienced nurses were visibly unnerved by my father’s sufferings. To let his agonies be over, the doctors cut him off from nutrition, water and all other support. My mum was in shock and I had no idea what to do. But as soon as I went into that room where my father trembled and gasped, my training took over. I sat on the bed, held his hand and sang Song of India from Sadko.

The tears were pouring down my face and my stomach was a pit of despair, but the sound came out firm and warm. His grey eyes lowered and focused, and his hand stopped twitching and returned my gentle pressure. His breathing calmed. In the five days it took him to die, I sang Irish folk songs, the Scottish ballad Gilderoy, and the song Johann Sebastian Bach wrote out in his wife’s notebook, Bist Du bei Mir: ‘If you are with me, then I will gladly go / to death and to my rest. / Ah, how pleasant would my end be, / if your dear, fair hands shut / my faithful eyes.’

Even when everything seemed so hopeless and all normal ways of interacting, with their conventions, so meaningless in the face of death, music still reached my father.

He never got a chance to say goodbye. He managed to give only the occasional short, strangled cry. But I know he could hear. And although he could barely move, every time I asked, ‘Would you like to hear another?’ my father moved his left arm up, and with a gentlemanly gesture cupped his ear.


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