Like many college students, Mackenzie Aldridge and Caroline Rushing share a room, a refrigerator, chores and confidences. They chitchat with and look out for the people down the hall. Typical dorm, right?
Well, no. Their new friends down the hall are in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
The senior music therapy students live for free this year in the Rose Anna Hughes Home with more than three dozen “grand-neighbors” who lovingly keep watch on the 21-year-olds’ comings and goings and who savor their everyday interactions in the Louisville personal care home. Residents in the adjacent Westminster Terrace, another part of Presbyterian Homes and Services of Kentucky, also benefit from the students’ musical gifts and camaraderie.
This unexpected coupling of talents and treasure, youthfulness and longevity is the vision of UofL music therapy program director Lorna Segall, who piloted the alliance last year, even during a pandemic, with pioneers Kaitlyn Beard ’21 and Paige Nagle ’21.
Beard, now a music therapy graduate student at Florida State University, remembers being in class when Segall first broached the idea. “I kind of looked over at Paige, and she gave me a nod. Do you want to do this? I want to do this,” Beard said.
Beard channeled her passion for working with older adults into a living arrangement that laid the foundation for her continuing study and for a future she intends to have in hospice care. As student residents, she and Nagle were able to devote time to slowing down and talking with their older neighbors.
“A lot of the residents, they don’t get a lot of people interested in what they have to share,” Beard said. “They have all this life experience to give.”
And although some were initially puzzled that college students were interested in living among them, they “were excited about it. Everything that we do is intriguing to them,” Beard said, adding that topics could range from homework to boyfriends.
“I think it gave me a definitely deeper understanding of who older adults are,” Beard said.
The familiar strains of “Amazing Grace” fill the home’s sunny lobby on a Sunday afternoon. Rushing’s soft soprano is joined by several residents who chime in, growing stronger on the chorus. She strums her guitar and sways a little to the music. Nine residents have settled in, some with their walkers, as she set up her music stand and instruments, this time introducing her ukulele into the mix. She and Aldridge, who met as freshmen in the Cardinal Marching Band, also play clarinet but they haven’t yet worked that into the weekly concerts.
“Somebody tell me what that song makes you think of,” Rushing asked.
The students say the residents are partial to hymns, so “In the Garden” and “Precious Memories” are woven into that afternoon’s playlist. After “Precious Memories,” Rushing asks them to share a memory of their mother or father, and several do.
The country songs “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Don’t Fence Me In” spark other recollections about performers, with Rushing recalling that her grandfather enjoyed singer Roy Rogers. Several people suggested verses to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
“I’m going around all the genres today,” Rushing said.
Her ukulele accompanied “All You Have to Do Is Dream,” and that tune sparked discussion from Frieda Winkler, who hailed from Central City where the Everly Brothers Boulevard was named in tribute to songwriting performers Don and Phil Everly to honor their Muhlenberg County ties.
Tom Speed sometimes drums along with his fingertips like the 97-year-old used to on the real thing. Others enjoy the tunes silently while their neighbors croon with the young women.
“We just make a joyful noise; we can’t sing,” Winkler said.
Winkler and Nancy Allen enjoy chatting with the younger women about everyday stuff and cooking together sometimes. “I love it when we get to do banana bread,” Winkler volunteered.
The two residents were happy when UofL started this arrangement last year and also pleased that it continued this year with Aldridge and Rushing. “They just don’t run out of energy,” one remarked.
“I think they have a lot of grandparents,” Allen said. “We appreciate everything they do. They come see us every day to see how we are and what we’re doing.”
After the concert the residents adjourn to the spacious dining room, where Rushing and Aldridge can join them if they choose. Beth Branson and Zena Shine share a round table in the middle, where “Mackenzie and I have been let into the club,” Rushing joked.
“They keep tabs on where we’re going and when we’re going to be back,” she said. “They keep me straight.”
“They have to check in with their mamas,” Shine, 89, said.
Branson, “84 and proud of it,” said the two students “do so much for me. My oxygen (tank), they bring it down for me and they take it back up. I love their company. I love to hear about their life.”
“They just kind of adopted us, I think,” Rushing added.
Making connections, not just music
“I think music is a conduit for building relationships, but people just want to talk about their lives,” Rushing said. She is no stranger to performing at nursing homes as she grew up in Gamaliel, Kentucky, as the daughter of a music minister. And she thinks she’d like to ultimately work in hospice and end-of-life care.
Aldridge acknowledged having more of an initial learning curve. “I think it’s made me so much more patient with them,” the Waynesville, North Carolina, student said. “I’m going beyond that therapeutic experience.”
“Music therapy is very music-based but it’s not the end goal. It’s about ‘Am I hearing your needs and am I meeting your goals?’”
“They just want to talk – and to be heard,” Aldridge said. “I think it surprised me how close we’ve gotten so quickly.”
The students arranged their Belknap Campus classes so they have the alternate days at the facility. Aldridge and Rushing had an apartment last year and have transplanted their large collection of houseplants, about 55, to their current room and various other spots around the facility.
They share their space with leopard gecko Kalypso and rescue cat Louie, who often perches in their second-floor windowsill just above the main entrance. “He loves watching all the people, and everybody loves him,” Aldridge said.
Some residents’ families have confirmed to the staff that they like the partnership and were relieved that it wasn’t a one-time offering.
“The residents love them. They still talk about Kaitlyn and Paige (from last year),” said Janeil Peterson, the community life director. “They like the young energy; it reminds them of their youth.”
The students meet weekly with Peterson and Segall to discuss programming goals, plans for more community involvement and ways to tweak the arrangement to everyone’s benefit. “I think one of our biggest goals is to keep this really fluid,” Peterson said. Playing to their strengths, last year Beard tended to do more individual music therapy, especially in the Westminster facility, and Nagle handled more group activities. This year the students are talking about adding some evening activities for the residents. And the residents are likely to enjoy performances by other UofL musicians.
“It’s such a great way for UofL to have a unique interaction with the community,” Segall said, praising executive Ben Durham’s commitment to the partnership. Segall also admired the students’ willingness to try something new with such positivity.
The experience “is a crash course in learning how to deal with a bunch of different people,” Segall said. “And maybe debunking some aging myths on both sides.”
And although there’s an obvious transfer of skills for future music therapists, Segall envisions the program someday involving students from art or other fields of study. “Just learning how to meaningfully be with people on a genuine level that’s authentic and sincere … I can’t imagine a major where having that experience wouldn’t be advantageous to their future practice.”