Volunteering at the Williams Adult Day Center (WADC) was the most soul-satisfying experience I have ever encountered.
Fast forward five years to 2013, when my then 84-year-old mother—who led singing groups for seniors in my hometown of Los Angeles—suggested I find a similar opportunity. I contacted Holly, who told me about WADC. I had no experience working with seniors nor interacting with adults who had dementia or Alzheimer’s, but I was open to learning.
Holly arranged for me to meet with then Volunteer Coordinator Mary Brady. I was immediately wowed. I expected a dour environment, but instead, I witnessed an energetic atmosphere of participants engaged in a variety of activities.
That summer, I started doing a twice-monthly Sing-Along. Bonnie Henderson, a program specialist at that time, sang with me and encouraged everyone to participate. Bonnie worked the room with a wireless microphone while I played the piano and sang. Program Coordinators Sylvia Martin and Cynthia Becker were both instrumental in getting participants to sing along.
Often, I’d arrive while pianist Kevin Douthit (“Kevin on the Keys”) was finishing up his session. He always gave me such a warm greeting. Kevin, like all the WADC staff, became my extended family.
Although my mother’s suggestion was intended as a way to keep up my musical skills, volunteering at the WADC was much more than that. It was, as my mother would say, “love full circle.”
Then President & CEO Richard Gottlieb recommended I watch the documentary film, “Alive Inside,” a deeply moving and powerful story about the impact of music on seniors with dementia. The stories featured were similar to what I’d been experiencing first-hand at the WADC. But the impact wasn’t just on the participants; the Sing-Alongs made me feel alive. Two memories come to mind:
Helen didn’t talk. She didn’t smile. She would stand or walk slowly around the room during the Sing-Along. I always made a point to talk to her, even though I didn’t get any reaction. I’d look up at her from my piano bench and make eye contact. One day, as we were all singing, I looked at her from across the room and smiled at her. She smiled back! And then I realized she was singing! Over time, Helen began to visibly recognize me and, in her own way, acknowledge me, sometimes with a nod, occasionally with a word or two. The music made a difference for her. And Helen made a difference for me.
Ester was another participant who touched my heart. WADC participants Kathleen, Crystal, Edwin, Darryl and Julie loved singing “Over the Rainbow” so we invited them to join me at the piano and sing as a group. One day, Ester, who had never participated, stood at the edge of the group. She started to sing, knowing the lyrics by memory. Everyone sounded great; it was one of the best renditions we had all done. Ester looked visibly stunned, and kept saying over and over again, “I can’t believe I just sang that! I can’t believe I just sang that! It’s my favorite song!” It was an emotional moment that brought tears to my eyes.
In July 2019, I was diagnosed with cancer. I planned to return to the WADC in early 2020. But the coronavirus hit, and in early April, the WADC was forced to suspend operations.
Volunteering at the WADC was a gift to me beyond measure. Singing with adults who struggle with dementia is a joy that cannot be fully described. You have to be there to see the expressions on their faces, to hear their voices ring out (not always on key!). I’m so grateful, and am eager to return soon.