Opening the doors of care homes, day centres and hospices to performers shows the difference quality activities can make
s Francesca Lanza belts out her opera favourite, O Mio Babbino Caro, some of the audience are enthralled, swaying along to the music and conducting with their hands. Others are holding fingers to their ears or having a snooze in their seats.
It’s not a typical reception for the professional singer, who is more used to performing at La Scala in Milan. Today her stage is the open plan conservatory and living room of a Dorset care home.
Thought to be the first opera written specifically for care settings, Six Characters in Search of an Opera by Rachel Barnett (directed by Helen Eastman) has been performed across London and south-west England in care homes, dementia units, community day centres and hospices.
At the Old Vicarage, a 40-bed care home in rural Dorset, the room is full and support workers, nurses and kitchen staff have crowded in at the back to watch. Residents begin one by one to pay more attention – they sit up a little straighter and start to tap their feet. By the end of the performance nearly every resident is singing along with a smile on their face.
The play – which includes opera favourites such as Rigoletto and the Toreador Song alongside songs such as Ivor Novello’s And Her Mother Came Too – was commissioned by Davina’s Fund, a small charity that aims to bring opera to older people unable to go and experience it for themselves.
Camilla Vickers runs the charity in memory of her mother, Davina, who set it up before she died of cancer two years ago. When her mother was diagnosed, Vickers relocated back to England from Italy, where she had met Lanza. “Francesca was always practising around the house for her concerts back in Italy,” Vickers says, “and whenever she sang, I could see that my mother felt better, happier, and I, as her carer, did too. It lifted her spirits hugely and there was a lightness to the house again.”
After organising small concerts for the local community, Vickers decided to expand the idea. She raised funds in partnership with the Centre for Innovation in Voluntary Action and commissioned the play. “I couldn’t fix my mum but the music really helped,” she says. “With the play, it’s also about connection. It’s not about patronising the residents; it’s about stretching them a bit.”This is care at its best. The residents are smiling and happy. That is what you can achieve with good quality activities
Next to her is 80-year-old Christopher Fry, the youngest resident. “I don’t like modern music,” he says. “Things like Glastonbury – I just couldn’t do anything like that, but this was wonderful. They were all very talented.”
Annie Stevenson, a trustee of the National Activity Providers Association, says “Six Characters” is an example of the kind of high-quality activity residents should expect in care homes. “It should be much more than bingo or one-size-fits-all activities, and hoping that volunteers come in and do something, which might not actually be very good,” she says. “It’s always well intentioned but often activities can be very patronising.”
When professional musicians and singers come in, they lift the spirits of the staff as well, Stevenson says. “They bring so much energy and it’s so powerful for everyone. It’s emotional and can really touch residents’ souls and uplift them. The CQC [Care Quality Commission] don’t measure things like that.”
Jan Millward, the care home’s activity coordinator, agrees. The Old Vicarage is private and her managers are supportive, but she is conscious that many of her peers do not have the resources to do the kinds of things she is able to.
“There are a lot of people out there who are up against it,” she explains, “and have only 8p a day to do activities with. I think the CQC needs to come in and ask proper questions. Managers would then be pressured into delivering proper activity provision. That’s the only way we’re going to get change, because managers really care about their CQC ratings as it affects their bottom line.”
Glancing back into the conservatory, where staff and residents are drinking tea and discussing the performance, Millward continues: “This is care at its best, really. The residents are all smiling and happy. That buzz will last; even those with dementia who will forget the performance won’t lose how it made them feel. That feeling of wellbeing is what you can achieve with good quality activities.”
It’s not just the residents and staff who have been positively affected. For Lanza, performing in care settings has had a surprising impact. “I have to admit at the beginning I was sceptical and the first time we did it, I was very scared. Usually when I sing I only care about my voice and my technique, but we were facing something very different and we had to be really aware of our audience.
“It has really opened my mind. It was a very important moment for me to be able to really see the effect of my voice on people and to be so close to them,” she says. “Now my way of performing has completely shifted because it has given true meaning to my skill.
“It’s been a life changing experience to be honest.”