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Halls are alive with the sound of their music

All year long, the Pay it Forward Volunteer Band enlists musicians to perform in nursing homes around the L.A. area. Often they play for those present but far away, their minds clouded by dementia or Alzheimer's.

December 25, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times

Now — 270 shows later — he's got a roster of 130 volunteers who play when they can, including a 9-year-old girl who sings. This month alone, they'll put on 44 shows. Next Christmas, he's aiming for twice as many. And over time, he says, he hopes the band can spread a message about the importance of regular, high-quality entertainment at all nursing homes.


Stop two is a Westlake nursing home run by a chain. The activity room looks out on a Ross Dress for Less.

Aides wheel about 20 people in and then mostly wander off. An old woman in a wheelchair asks again and again for a tissue, then gives up and lifts her shirt to her nose.

Her hair is gray. She wears gold spectacles. Her shirt is covered in roses. Her pants are lavender.

She looks meek and grandmotherly until the very first note is played. Then she shouts, "Sing it, Daddy!" — a chorus she vigorously keeps up, in various forms, as she claps with the music for the next hour.

She says her name is Antonia Cook, that she might be "170-something," that her mind is such that "I forget about you and what I'm supposed to be doing."

But when the band closes out its concert with "Feliz Navidad," she reaches out for hands to hold and lift to her lips to kiss.

"I had a ball," she said. "I really did. Thank you! Thank you! God bless you all."

The sun begins to go down at the band's third stop, a grim one-story building in Pico-Union with a large outdoor smoking area. On a plastic patio table, packs of Marlboro Reds are lined up in a box, marked with residents' names. Each smoker gets a pack a day, says a worker in a leather jacket and jeans. Near him, old men sit slumped over deep ashtrays, clutching burning cigarettes and coughing.

The activity room is so small, it can barely fit both the band and the audience of fewer than a dozen. An emergency exit looks out on cars. The room's walls are covered with the details of the schedule — store outing, Let's Take a Walk, coffee social, TV and dominoes — and the crayoned coloring-book pages that constitute arts and crafts.

One resident is falling sideways over the arm of his chair, unnoticed. Another wears sweat pants that are soaked through waist to thigh. And before the band is finished playing, staff members who say they need to clock out begin wheeling people away mid-song to go to dinner.

Still, for an hour, the few who manage to stay put hear saxophone solos and guitar riffs, and old favorites such as "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland." And maybe for that short stretch and as long as the memory of it lasts, their minds drift to happier places and happier times.

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