Here's How Putting on a Show is Working to Improve Life for Kentucky Nursing Home Residents
Earlier in June, a Hodgenville nursing home was the last of three in Kentucky operated by Signature Healthcare to stage a play guided by a team of Kentucky and national artists.
The team’s aspirations: to improve residents’ quality of life, their cognitive abilities, attitudes about the elderly — and even residents’ medical outcomes.
Reporter Elizabeth Kramer went to Sunrise Manor Nursing Home in Larue County, where choreographer Kevin Iaga Jeff recently led more than a dozen residents pushed by caretakers or family members as they rehearsed a big dance number.
The Story of Peter Pan Comes to Kentucky Nursing Homes
The dance is for Wendy’s Neverland, a play with characters and ideas from the story of Peter Pan nearly two years in the making.
Cast and crew call this number “the wheelchair ballet.” For Jeff, a Chicago-based artist, choreographing this was a no-brainer.
“Most of the residents are using a wheelchair at some point of the day — you know, even if they can walk — so let’s make that a dance,” he said.
There’s clamor daily when the staff members clear the dining room, and the music attracts onlookers. Sometimes the dance gains newcomers, according to Sonya Turner, Sunrise Manor’s quality of life director.
“One of our elders, she would come and watch, but yesterday she said I don't want to watch anymore. I want to be in the wheelchair ballet. I want to dance.”
Since early 2018, staff members and artists have led residents to create art and poetry that line the nursing home walls. They’ve led music sessions. There were no lines to memorize. The team worked with elders and staff to create their costumes.
Participants now include family members, and teen and adult musicians from Larue and Hardin counties and beyond.
This production mirrors others staged at homes in Beattyville and Morgantown. All were financed through a $700,000 grant from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services collected from penalties levied on nursing homes and similar facilities.
Signature Heathcare’s Quality of Life Director Angie McAllister brought this initiative to the company.
“A lot of people bring the arts to kids and they forget elders, and the need for their personal expression and how that need grows. And to help facilitate a gain for them is a powerful move,” McAllister said.
Signature Healthcare partnered with another company, TimesSlips, and founder Anne Basting, a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. Using TimeSlips’ methodology, participants responded to questions to create stories and art.
In “Wendy’s Neverland,” the heroine doesn’t think anyone believes her past adventures, casting doubt on her identity and humanity.
Basting wrote parts of play using what Basting calls the elders’ “I Am” poems. The team wove recordings of them into scenes.
That “I am” theme echoes in the ballet scene when dancers present themselves. It’s her favorite part.
“It’s just that some of their voices you can barely hear, and you know the physical struggle they’re making to even say their names out loud and to be heard,” Basting said. “It’s — I am not a nameless body in a wheelchair in this place. I am this person, and I am this past, and I am this present."
Retired schoolteacher Madge Cockerham, now 90, came to Sunrise Manor weeks after performing in Beattyville. In that production, she radiated joy as her shoulders boldly swayed to Sinatra.
“It made me feel like they loved us and that they wanted us to be displayed in the best manner possible — like I did my students.”
But Cockerham wasn’t smiling when she first learned of the project.
“I wasn’t really all for it because I have Parkinson’s,” she said. “And I thought — I won’t be able to do this.
Some staff members had similar thoughts. They thought the project might endanger elders or generate code violations. Nicole Gordon, a nurse manger, was one of them.
“I thought, are you kidding me. We’re going to spend all this money and we could be doing other things with it. Now, that I’ve been a part of it — I’m ashamed of what I thought.”
Donovan Dame, Sunrise Manor’s head administrator was another.
“For me, just seeing the transformation of the facility was when I was really like — OK, I get it now.”
Gordon witnessed other transformations.
“I’ve seen residents get out of bed who don’t ever get out of bed — maybe once a week and everyday they’re participating they’re coming down and looking forward to it.”
Big Picture Impact on Health and Well-Being
Nursing home staff members also noted a sharp drop in falls around the time of productions.
Signature Healthcare and TimeSlips are diving deep into the data to analyze the project’s impact. According to chief medical officer, Arif Nazir, they have a lot of questions.
“Did it improve depression metrics? Did it improve things like patient weight, staff impact like staff engagement, staff turnovers?”
Meanwhile, another grant is in the works to bring theater, music and art to other Signature Healthcare facilities and those of other companies in Kentucky.