The ability of people to adapt their activities to an online format has been one of the most striking phenomena of the Covid-19 pandemic. And while most people acknowledge that connecting via computer screens is a poor second to meeting in person, the social benefits of online meet-ups have been a lifeline for many people confined to their homes.
The weekly Zoom sessions of the National Concert Hall’s (NCH) Tea Dance Tunes is a perfect example of this phenomenon – which I suspect sociologists will be writing academic papers on once this pandemic passes.
Led by professional singer Liz Ryan, these weekly musical events bring together older people in nursing homes with those living independently in their own homes. Before the pandemic, many would have travelled to Dublin to attend the Tea Dance Tunes (usually sold out in advance) but now those who can have switched to free online sessions until it is deemed safe to meet in person again.
On the week that I join the Zoom call, I'm struck by Ryan's inclusive manner as she waves and smiles from her home to each group as they switch on their screens. Then, without further ado, she begins by singing a few old favourites (Irish country song Come Back Paddy Reilly and Dana's All Kinds of Everything) which some participants join in with, their microphones on mute.
“We go with what happens in the moment,” says Ryan. She admits that it took her a few sessions to understand the difference between being in the concert hall to singing in her sitting room. “But then I realised we are all at home and I just have to make everyone feel at home in a metaphorical way – to feel welcome, relaxed and included. And for the participants, it’s just like watching television and then putting them on television as well.”
Over the hour-long session, various people volunteer to sing a song or request specific songs for Ryan to sing. And pianist Niall Kinsella plays other requests including Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Waters – a poignantly apt song for the times we are living in. A 99-year-old resident from a Dublin nursing home gives a striking rendition of Stephen Sondheim's Send in the Clowns while Frank Loughran performs Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii on his trumpet.
Janice and Jim Dobbie from Athlone, Co Westmeath, were regular attendees at the Tea Dance Tunes in the NCH but since the lockdown, they have tuned in online. "It isn't the same as being in a physical group when Liz [Ryan] could move in and out of the groups, encouraging people to sing. It's still enjoyable. And Liz is very good – especially with older people," says Janice Dobbie, who sings The Hucklebuck on the session I tune in to.
Brian Kenny and his wife, Helen, also regularly join the Zoom Tea Dance Tunes from their Co Wexford home. Although suffering from cognitive deficiency, Helen sings On the Street Where You Live from My Fair Lady, the 1950s Broadway musical. "Helen was always a singer and sang in choirs although she was shy about singing on her own. In fact, she never sang on her own until she came to the Tea Dance Tunes," explains Brian Kenny.
He says that singing has given her great confidence. "Sometimes, I put on an old song on YouTube and she'll sing along. She wouldn't remember what song she sang [later that day] but she'd remember the teacher who taught her it in school."
Aoife Houlihan, social care manager at the Four Ferns Nursing Home in Foxrock, Co Dublin, says the residents enjoy the interaction with people in other care homes and people in their own homes. "There is great camaraderie . It's been a difficult year. People miss going to live shows but this is the next best thing. And it's nice to see people in similar situations to themselves," says Houlihan.
Houlihan says that music is a powerful tool which transcends dementia. “It’s particularly good for residents who struggle with conversations because they can sing along to all the words. They may forget that they watched it but the positive feelings stay with them for the day,” she says.