Creative Aging Cincinnati keeps seniors active and engaged through artistic programming

It was more than 75 years ago that Helen Davidson snuck out of her family’s Mt. Adams home, rode two buses across town, and arrived at a church to inquire about the exact notes she had recently heard a man play there on piano.

“I had never heard anybody do those runs up and down that keyboard,” Davidson says. “So when I arrived, I said to a woman who worked in the church, ‘Lucille, just tell me the notes that man hits, and I’ll practice them until I get those runs.’”

The then 13-year-old Davidson returned home to begin a venture that would lead to a lifetime of fulfillment.

“Of course I was in trouble, but every time my mother would come in the house — boy, I was just practicing those notes — and I’d get faster and faster,” Davidson says.

She remembers her mother asking her if she was ever going to stop repeating the riff, but she was determined to master it. And master it, she did.

In fact, it was just a couple years after inquiring about those very runs that she went on to become her mother’s accompanist.

“When I got to play for her, I would sit there and play the piano and cry, because I saw what she was doing,” Davidson says.

Her mother was an evangelist who traveled all around the world.

“She was a pioneer — my grandmother — it was unusual at that time,” says Davidson’s daughter, Bekah Williams, who continues the family tradition herself, singing and performing at local venues.

Williams listens as Davidson says she remembers watching her mother walking the aisles, up and down, until finally stopping at one individual — a connection that she, and seemingly everyone else in the room, could sense.

“I thought, ‘Oh she’s after somebody. Oh boy, somebody’s gonna get it,’” Davidson says. “And she’d go all the way around and would say, ‘But you are the sheep that was lost’ — the song she was singing — it was called ‘The Lost Sheep.’”

Davidson has a large piece of artwork representing that symbolic lost sheep in her apartment today.

“It’s a blessing to me. Everybody that walks in my apartment — that’s the first thing they look at. They want to see that picture,” Davidson says, as she proceeds to sing a verse. “‘There was one poor little sheep that had wandered, and he gathered him safe in his arms.’”

Fortitude, peace, and comfort resound

As she approaches 90, with fingers nearly broken as a result of her flourishing style on the keys, Davidson continues to play and sing with the same resolve she possessed as a child

She plays for an audience on a daily basis at Carriage Court of Kenwood — a place she’s called home for the past four years — and a place where residents gather around the piano as they wrap up their mid-day meals, to have their spirits lifted by Davidson.

“I’m there every day, every single day, from 1 p.m. until 1:30 p.m., for four years,” she says. “I like the way all the people from the second floor come down — the residents with dementia. There’s a whole gang of them, and they start pouring down. They quiet down, and sit there and listen, and sometimes they sit there and cry, and I think, ‘Oh isn’t this sweet.’”

Just like her mother, Davidson has a knack for reaching those who perhaps need it the most.

“Sometimes I’ll say to somebody, ‘You know, let me tell you something — help is coming,’” Davidson says. “I don’t know why I said it. I don’t know why I did it, but then they come and tell me it came that very night. It’s because I felt something while I was singing.”

Davidson’s daughter says Helen has always been willing to give of herself, utilizing her musical talents to reach others.

For 34 years, she served as the director of music at the church in which her husband served as pastor.

“She’s always been a minister in her own right — people always came to her,” Williams says. “She would work all day at her job as a supervisor, while also directing the choir, raising seven children, and taking calls every night to help people through tough times. So she’s something else.”

For someone who’s given so much, it’s special, Williams says, that programming is in place for her mother to be on the receiving end of things, as well.

“They have a lot of music options here,” Williams says. “And my mother will never miss a program unless she is very ill. She’s always looking at that calendar, and that’s something that’s always been a big draw for her.”

Creative Aging provides a variety of artistic activities and projects.

Creative Aging Cincinnati, a nonprofit that’s made an impact in Greater Cincinnati since 1975, is responsible for delivering quite a bit of that programming to Carriage Court, in addition to nearly 100 other facilities in the area — regardless of one’s financial abilities.

“Sometimes I think the programs we provide can be, from an outsider’s standpoint, just entertainment or something to fill time, but it’s a lot more than that,” says Bev Ross, Creative Aging’s executive director.

Ross has witnessed first-hand the impact much of that programming has had, from the individual who suffered a stroke and who is nonverbal but can still sing along to familiar songs, to the person with Parkinson’s who can barely walk but can still dance.

I am always reminded how important it is to keep people active, engaged, and content — even if just for a short time — with music, art, history, and dance — all the different types of services that we are able to offer,” says Lisa Legters, Creative Aging’s program director.

The nonprofit currently offers more than 200 programs — via in-facility, outreach, and a highly individualized Kohler dementia program — while working with about 150 different artists and performance groups.

One such artist is blues, boogie-woogie, and New Orleans-style pianist, Ricky Nye. He performs regularly with Williams, but has performed his solo work for about 20 years with Creative Aging as well.

“The best thing I can hear from people after a program is, ‘Oh you brought back so many memories,’” Nye says. “I’ve had some really touching moments.”

And those moments, while always beautiful, are not always easy.

“The third program I played was for advanced Alzheimer’s patients, and I had never had that sort of experience before; it was a little unsettling,” Nye says, as many of the individuals were sitting in wheelchairs, holding baby dolls.

Though it was difficult to tell what kind of impact he was having at the time, Nye says the activity director approached him afterward and said, “’Let me tell you a little secret … if they’re moving a finger or they’re moving their foot, you’re in.’”

“It’s just beautiful. And it’s not about me, but the music — I believe in the spiritual power of music, and it’s a way to experience this whenever I play for folks in this kind of setting,” Nye says. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s an affluent high rise senior living place or a less affluent one — it’s all different, and it’s all good —and I’m just so grateful to be able to have this opportunity.”

Davidson says she’s also beyond grateful for the opportunity, and she knows her fellow Carriage Court residents are as well.

“If a piano wasn’t in place here, I don’t know what I’d do,” Davidson says. “Let me tell you, music will help the people here. Sometimes it’s lively, but quiet music, too — it’s just soothing, and calms you down if you’re nervous, or you’re upset — it just gives you a little bit of peace for a while, because some people haven’t had it for so long.”

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Brittany York is a college educator, freelance writer, and the event producer for Ohio Civics Essential. She loves travel and photography. Keep up with Brittany on Instagram @brittbrittbrittbrittany.