Interview with Christina

Caregivers are increasingly playing a very important role in providing assistance and care not only to organizations and medical facilities but also to family members and loved ones.  They can be responsible for everything from personal care and supervision to mobility assistance and dispensing medications. To highlight the importance of October 21, National Check Your Meds Day, we wanted to feature someone that we feel is an extraordinary caregiver.

Christina Britton Conroy, M.A., L.C.A.T., C.M.T.  and author of How to Have Fun With Your Aging Parents is the founder and Executive Director of Music Gives Life, bringing musical performing into the lives of senior citizens. Many of her elderly showstoppers, ages 60- 101, never performed in public before joining Christina’s program. NY1 – TV NEWS named them NYers of the Week. A former senior center director, nursing home music therapist, and primary caregiver for two elderly family members, Christina has unique insights into the joys and frustrations shared by geriatric patients and their caregivers. Also, a classically trained musician/actor, Christina toured the world performing musical theatre. She lives in Greenwich Village, NYC with her husband, actor/media-coach/cartoonist Larry Conroy.

Here’s our interview with Christina:

How long have you been a caregiver?

I’ve been working with frail and well-elders for 25 years. Before that, when I was only twenty-seven, my sixty-year-old mother died of cancer, leaving me to care for my temperamental, over-controlling, eighty-year-old father. I was a singer/actor living from job-to-job, and spending most of my life on the road. Learning to care for him, and myself, was a tough journey. When he died at 92, we were at peace with each other. Soon after, I went back to school, earned an MA in music therapy, changed careers, became a certified music therapist and licensed creative arts therapist.

What inspired you to write your book, How to Have Fun with Your Aging Parents?

After 25 years working in a nursing home, adult day center, and senior citizen centers, I discovered a catalogue of techniques to deal with unhappy elders. Now, I am eager to help professional colleagues, and untrained family caregivers bring passion and joy back into the lives of their aging loved ones.

What are a few ways you can motivate elderly clients or family members to be active?

Everyone enjoys doing something. Discovering that something can be a challenge. My dad seemed to enjoy nothing. In fact, he loved talking about himself. Finally figuring that out, I gave him a small tape recorder and box of tapes. Recording his life story made him feel happy and fulfilled.

Ted was a nursing home patient with crippling arthritis. Unable to move without assistance, he was angry and verbally abusive to the nursing staffers keeping him alive. I was the music therapist. Ted was wheeled into my programs and started talking to me. I learned he had been a welder. His life had been work – home – beer – TV – sleep. Nothing else, no family, no travel, no hobbies. Eventually, I figured out that he had played the radio in the welding shop, for 30 years. He knew every band, singer, and top song for decades.

I convinced Ted to lead a musical reminiscing group. He chose old songs on CDs and vinyl records. A dozen residents were taken into a day room, and a nurse’s aide played one song at a time. Ted asked each listener what memories the song brought up, and conversation flowed. His program became very popular, and his self-esteem grew. He never became a totally pleasant person, but he did become friendlier and easier to live with.  

What are your 4 dysfunctional parent types?

Parent Type 1: Stuck in a rut – “My mother’s only seventy-eight. She’s healthy, but all she wants to do is get her hair done and play BINGO. She sits around the house all day watching soap operas, and it’s driving me crazy. What can I do to make her life more interesting?”

Parent Type 2: Self-isolating – “I’m very worried about Dad. He’s eighty-three, and he used to be the life of the party. Now most of his buddies have passed away and he won’t even pick up the phone. He’s so unhappy. There’s a lovely senior citizens’ center down the street, but he says he doesn’t want to be around, ‘Those old people.’ He won’t go anywhere. What can I do for him?”

Parent Type 3: Dangerously independent – “My mom is eighty-nine, half-blind, deaf, and lame, but still insists on doing everything by herself. She refuses to get rid of her clutter, and I’m afraid she’ll burn the house down. She could fall crossing the street and hurt herself. I’m afraid to leave her alone, but I have to go to work. She won’t let anyone else help her. What can I do?”

Parent Type 4: Unreasonably demanding – “I do everything for Dad, but it’s never enough. He hates feeling useless, but his arthritis is so bad, he can hardly walk. He’s mad at his condition, so he yells at me. I try not to take it personally, but some days, it’s hard not to yell back at him. I try to balance my job, my husband, my kids, and my father, but it’s too much for one person. If I’m fifteen minutes late, or buy Dad the wrong brand of peanut butter, he starts yelling. He won’t allow a home attendant into the house, so what can I do?”

How does music play an important part in keeping the elderly active?

One Christmas, when I was still a fulltime performer, I was hired to sing carols at a nursing home. I took my small Irish harp and entertained a half-dozen residents at a time in several locations around the building.

Unlike singing on a large stage with a faceless audience sitting in the dark, these few, frail people stared vacantly. I started singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and suddenly, like wilted flowers, they seemed to bloom with new life. Their sagging bodies physically changed. Shouting out the lyrics of the old holiday song, they sat up singing with pure joy. For the first time, I truly realized that music could be much more than just entertainment. I now expect dementia/Alzheimer’s patients, who cannot remember the names of the children, to remember a dozen old songs, sing loudly, enjoy moving to music, and raise their endorphin levels by breathing deeply.

I was running a senior center when I met Bill. He was in his late sixties, shy, and bored. He contracted polio at the age of two and wore leg-braces his entire life. He was never sent to regular public school, but was taught to grind eyeglasses, and make costume jewelry.

He had little musical ability, but enjoyed singing in my chorus, and playing in the musical improvisation sessions I held once a week. After about a year of improvising, Bill and a few other center members came to me saying that they wanted to play, “real music.” They wanted me to start a band. I was shocked, but intrigued. I carefully explained that playing “real music,” meant they actually had to learn to play musical instruments, practice technique, take corrections, and learn the right notes. They were adamant. I agreed and the band was formed.

I tried Bill on several instruments, and he finally settledon bass drum. He loved playing and his self-esteem grew.He became so proud of himself; he offered to teach a jewelry- making class. Before long, his class was a highlight of center activities. He had two-dozen elderly students. We were all buying and wearing his simple, attractive designs. His jewelry sales made money for the center, and he was suddenly a very important guy. If Bill had never tried playing a drum, he might never have gained the personal confidence to teach a jewelry-making class, rediscover his old passion, and create a product that benefitted so many.

How can family members handle a loved one who may not realize or accept their physical or mental limitations?

This is my Parent Type 3: Dangerously independent. There may be much unhappiness if a family member is forced to accept a helper in the house, or be moved to a residential facility. A chapter in my book is called Compassionate Lies. Sadly, we often need to make up stories to keep loved ones safe. Frail individuals usually recognize they are not as agile as they used to be and need physical therapy. Saying that a residential facility, or home health aide, is only necessary to provide that therapy, can help them accept moving, or allowing a stranger into the house. When I was caregiving my 90-year-old father, he adamantly refused home helpers. It was only after he fell and broke a hip that he understood and allowed an aide into his home. Since he would never knowingly pay for that help, it necessitated a further lie. He had no long-term care insurance, but I warned his helpers to refuse cash money he would offer, and say they were being paid by his insurance. It worked. He stayed safe and I stayed sane.7.  Most seniors are taking multiple medications. How can you help them keep track of when and which to take?

Safest is for the med’s to be presorted and, if necessary, administered by someone else.

Do you find that many are taking medications that could potentially have adverse drug reactions? How do you minimize that risk?

All medications have side effects. Caregivers must ask their healthcare providers, and especially pharmacists, about dug side effects and interactions.