We are heading into next week to say “good-bye” to our “Dancing Heart” friends at five nursing homes. We have been dancing together for two years through a Minnesota Department of Human Services grant given to five nursing homes that Ebenezer either owns or manages.
The grant has run out. There is a hiring freeze imposed on the nursing homes – so there is no artist on staff to support the five weekly programs that 3-4 Kairos teaching artists and 1-2 volunteers have facilitated for the last two years. The staff at each site will try to continue weekly dance and storytelling activities but “The Dancing Heart” itself will be gone. We know from experience that the success of the “Dancing Heart” program depends on on-going collaboration from professional performing artists that are the core of the Kairos teaching artists’ team.
I feel joy when I think of all the stories, all the dances, all the laughter, and surprises from the last two years – like when one elder stood and danced with his visiting wife for the first time in many years. Another told a story that had us laughing and crying at the same time. I feel joy when I think of the people we have collaborated with: the ones we saw each week and the ones who have passed on. We still remember dancing with them and we remember their stories of joy and grief. I feel joy when I think of many of the staff we have had the opportunity to work with. I remember the ones who have gone out of their way to create a very special prop or went looking for the song or a story from a family member, and the ones who have learned to sing a hello and dance a memory.
I feel grief having to say good-bye – wishing I still could show up every week and find another way to invite an elder back into the dancing circle- invite a gift to be shared- support them as they experience mastery- finding joy in the moment of rising from the wheelchair to dance an Irish jig while holding on tightly to my hands for support and delight.
I feel grief that there is not enough money to bring artists to work with elders and to support their dedicated staff in nursing homes each week. I feel grief when I think of my own Mom feeling so frustrated in a nursing home. Her mind was bright and vital, but she felt isolated in an institution that was designed to give her basic comforts – but with little support to help her share her legacy, her gifts, through the arts of storytelling, theater and dance.
I feel grief that there are so many elders in nursing homes or isolated in their homes who die without passing on their stories of what they most loved in the world; who can’t share that favorite dance they did with their husband-to-be, or tell you what had the most impact in their lives like what it was like to be crawling on their belly in the middle of a World War II battle.
We need to invite our elders back into to the circle of our communities before it is too late- and we have missed that laugh, that song, that dance, that story that we will never hear or see quite the same way again.