“We all need meaning and purpose, and at the end of life, we need to feel like our life meant something, that it was worthwhile. If you can tell your story in a way that other people enjoy and will listen to, it’s an amazing boost for your sense of worth.” Geriatric physician Lewis Mehl-Madrona was describing the philosophy behind SageArts, which brings together musicians and elders to collaborate on songwriting that expresses the essence of each elder’s life experience.
SageArts was launched last spring by organizational consultant Colette Ruoff of Rosendale, who was inspired by Lifesongs, a project started by two musicians in Santa Fe. Five Hudson Valley singer-songwriters received training from the Lifesongs founders and have been working with elders in the local community. The resulting songs will be performed at a benefit concert at Marbletown Community Center in Stone Ridge on Sunday, May 31, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Because one of the goals of SageArts is to connect youth with seniors, young people from the Hudson Valley performance troupe Vanaver Caravan will be singing the songs back to the elders. Also performing will be Elizabeth Clark-Jerez, Elly Wininger, Dave Kearney, Bonnie Meadow, and Jim Metzner who have developed songs about the lives of elders Janet Fulmer, Rosalind Stark, Pauline Delson, Carlo Travaglia, and Richard Geldard. They will be joined by guest artists Peter Wetzler, Stephen Johnson, Eleni Reyes, Karen Levine and Elena Erber of Caprice Rouge, Vicki Russell, Sara Perrotta, Heather Masse, Sarah Kramer-Harrison, and the band Mamalama.
The songwriting process created a deep bond between 86-year-old Carlo Travaglia and musician Dave Kearney, who discovered common ground in their difficult relationships with their fathers. “I thought I would just collect information and write a song about him,” said Kearney, who visited Travaglia at his house weekly over the course of three months. “Instead, we shared down to the bone the emotions of our life stories. I made a friend in Carlo I’m sure I will have the rest of my life.”
Travaglia, who was 16 when his father died, told Kearney about “things he’d needed to say for years and couldn’t find the right person to say them to,” explained the musician. “And I talked about unresolved things I hadn’t said to my dad. It’s going to be an emotional moment for me to do this song onstage.”
Kearney came up with the idea of framing the song as a dream sequence. “Carlo’s father comes to him in a dream. Just like in real life, his father doesn’t say much. I asked Carlo, ‘What would you say to him if you had chance to talk to him and know he’s hearing you?’” When Kearney played the song for the first time, Carlo and his wife were in tears. “Then I knew I had done my job.”
Travaglia explained that the process “opened up perceptions of what I had been through and how I had managed to deal with this stuff. It was cathartic. It reenergized me. As a result, I’m starting to write a memoir.” He is also considering joining the advisory board of SageArts to help bring the program into nursing homes, where he feels the work could be vital. “When people go into nursing homes, they close down. There’s still a lot of life in these people, we just have to find it, to reignite their hope.”
Ruoff, SageArts’ founder and president of the board, has found a nursing home, Thompson House in Rhinebeck, where the staff is eager to embrace the process, but the structure of the system is getting in the way. The types of grants available to a nursing home require “the most bang for the buck,” said Ruoff. “Grants tend to work with large numbers of people and touch them superficially. We’re going deep and narrow with a small number of people and sharing it widely. We believe there’s an enormous ripple effect through the community.” That effect includes changing public perceptions of elders and giving staff at facilities a new respect for their clients. Mehl-Medrona has seen family members gain more appreciation for their elderly relatives after attending a concert.
For now, Ruoff is contemplating going into low-income senior housing projects. “We want to write songs with people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds than the ones we’ve worked with so far, who are mostly upper-middle-class, white, and highly educated. But all voices of elders of the community matter, and people have different life experiences to bring.”
Francesca Ortolano hopes to bring the work into Kingston’s Governor Clinton Apartments and Alexander Yosman Towers, where she manages programs for the residents, all low-income seniors. She remarked, “I’m so excited about what Colette is doing. Our elders come with rich lives and histories and have a lot to offer in terms of the stories to tell and notches in their belt. And it’s wonderful for them to know people want to hear their stories.”
Through the concert, Ruoff is hoping to raise money to pay the musicians and start a pilot program at the residences managed by Ortolano. “These songwriters have given so much to this project on a volunteer basis,” said Ruoff. “It’s time now to turn around and employ them. We received a generous donation from Markertek, but it’s been challenging. We’re a startup and you need a certain number of years of history before you can go to foundations.”
When she brought the elders together for a conversation, Ruoff learned that the project has catalyzed changes in their lives. Richard Geldard has gone back to teaching philosophy after 15 years of retirement. Pauline Delson, 99, drew on her dance background to choreograph a folk dance for the May 31 concert. Rosalind Stark, 95, has returned to playing the piano. “We’re building a community of elders who will be meeting monthly,” said Ruoff. “We’re talking about other things we can do, making films, unleashing the voices of elders. A lot is bubbling up through this process.”
Mehl-Medrona observed, “We live in a culture of quickness, and a song is a nice unit of attention that even young people can manage. This work is a marvelous exercise in distilling what was essential about yourself and communicating it to other people. Also, it’s really good for your brain. Stuff like this slows the rate of decline and can improve cognitive function. If you can delay progress to a nursing home by one month you can save millions of dollars. We need to be looking in these directions.”
SageArts will present a benefit concert on Sunday, May 31, 4-7 p.m., at Marbletown Community Center, 3564 Main Street in Stone Ridge. Tickets are $20, and $10 for elders and children. For more information on SageArts, or to consider joining the advisory board, see https://www.sagearts.org.