5 Things I Learned By Starting a Rock Band With Octogenarians

Picture this: you walk into a room full of people in their 80's and 90's with an electric guitar, amp, drum set, and more. Then you use those instruments to start blasting some Clash. How well do you think that will go over?

Back in the Spring, we started a group called the Intergenerational Rock Band (though later on, we decided on a much catchier band name: The Crabby Apples). Every week for an hour, myself, our intern Hannah, and several volunteer high school and college students would go to the Arbor Terrace at Crabapple assisted living community, set up a bunch of instruments, and sing rock and rolls songs with the residents.

Here's the thing: they loved it.

Well, I should say, our regulars loved it (more on that later). But the group as a whole was a smashing success. At the end of the season, we put on a rock and roll show for family members and loved ones. The reaction from the family members of residents is something I'll never forget. Getting to see their parents or grandparent do something kind of whacky and new and be a part of something unique was invaluable to them.

Along the way, I learned a few important lessons. Things that transcend a simple rock band and teach you about life.

1. Attitude is Everything

The initial reaction I got from the fine folks at Arbor Terrace when I brought this idea to them was one of interest...but also skepticism. Rock and Roll band? For these folks? Are you sure they'll be interested?

You might think that bringing that kind of loud music into an assisted living community might go over as well as bringing big band jazz music into a middle school.

And you'd be exactly right!

Have you ever seen the kids in middle school jazz bands? They love it! They start sporting fedoras and suspenders with spats on their shoes. They buy gaudy zoot suits and everything.

Why? Because it's all about the attitude, both of the leader and participants.

Leading the group, I had to really sell it as something fun, as well as something they can do to shatter some stereotypes about their generation.

As participants, they had to have an open mind and a willingness to get a little silly. Some bought in, others didn't. This taught me that...

2. You Can't Be All Things to All People

Some will buy in, some won't, and that's perfectly okay. Just because we get older, or live in the same community, or because I'm doing my best to sell you on this group doesn't mean that everyone will love it. Everybody has their own unique personalities, and some folks just aren't going to enjoy the rock band.

I had to learn to be okay with this. There was a delicate line of trying to talk someone into giving it a chance and coming out to rehearsal, and realizing that the group might not be a good fit for them. I had to learn to stop trying to sell some folks on it, that it just wasn't their cup of tea. Ultimately, giving it a pass was the best thing for them and the group.

We ended up with a collection of folks who were all-in, which taught me...

3. Never Underestimate the Power of Belonging...and T-Shirts

Once we had our core group, we were unstoppable. Becoming part of the "band" became a point of pride for those involved. They showed up to rehearsal early and ready to pull their weight. They told their family members and friends all about it.

I came to realize that this sense of belonging meant something, even to those who are much older than I am. The idea of the loner old person who wants nothing to do with anyone else is a complete fallacy. We never lose that desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. It's such an important piece of what makes us human, it would be cruel to deny that to someone as they age.

And nothing represents being a part of a group quite like a t-shirt does. That rock band t-shirt was a trophy, a status symbol. And if somebody got a t-shirt without showing up to rehearsal regularly, you can bet people didn't take kindly to it. I kid you not.

4. Overcoming the "I Can't" Mentality is Tough

Just about every single person in the rock band told me "Oh, I can't sing!" when I told them about the group. I always gave them the same response.

"Perfect! You don't have to be a good singer to sing rock music, you just have to be loud."

I even had people with beautiful voices sit there and tell me they couldn't sing! Right after I heard them sing loud and right on pitch!

This taught me that we never really grow out of that insecurity about our talents, particularly performance based talents like singing. Somewhere around our teenage years, we start to tell ourselves that we "can't sing," "can't dance," "aren't a good writer," can't do anything! But we can! You don't have to be the next Andrea Bocelli, no one is expecting you to.

It was a bit sad to me that that attitude follows us into our later years, but I also learned...

5. You're Never too Old to Do It

Those same folks that told me they can't proved themselves wrong by doing it. Some even had featured singing parts during our concert. It would've been easy to just say "I can't," and head back to their rooms without giving it a chance, but they didn't. They stepped up to the challenge and crushed it.

That filled me with a lot of hope. We live in a world that moves by us so fast, it's easy to feel like opportunities to try new things have passed us by long ago. But that's all in our head. The opportunities are still there, you just convinced yourself that it's too late to jump.

Jump already! If a 90 year old woman can belt out "I LOVE rock and roll!" what the hell is your excuse?

We're looking for our next batch of high school and college student volunteers for our next season of the Intergenerational Rock Band! If you're interested, shoot an email to andrew@thegeorgecenter.com  TODAY!

Andrew Littlefield MM, MT-BC

The George Center , 12060 Etris Road, Roswell, GA, 30075