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Musicians put on a show outside Lincoln assisted-living center
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Musicians put on a show outside Lincoln assisted-living center

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Residents of the Lexington Assisted Living Center watched and listened from their apartments and the balconies overlooking the center’s courtyard Wednesday afternoon as the song rang out from a half-dozen singers and the guitar of Rachel Mulcahy, whose stage name is Miss Katie Rae.

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About a half-hour later, across 56th Street at The Legacy, musician Mike Semrad and guitarist Mike McCracken rocked through Buddy Holly’s “Oh, Boy” in the parking lot, amplified by a portable sound system.

The singing outside the neighboring centers coincidentally overlapped. The concerts were part of a dramatic change in their operations and programming created by the coronavirus pandemic.

It's been nearly three weeks since Nebraska's first coronavirus patient, and since then, nursing homes, assisted-living and senior living centers with restricted access have been looking for ways to keep residents calm and occupied. Music is a perfect vehicle for both, said Legacy Communities CEO Greg Joyce.

“We have live music all the time," Joyce said. “But we’ve never done anything like this before. We’ve never done it where we’re trying to keep people comfy in their rooms and 6 feet apart.”

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At the Lexington, staff members carried signs that read “Happy Thoughts” and “You Are My Sunshine" and residents responded with banners made of plastic tablecloths that unfurled from the balconies reading “You Rock" as the singers ran through songs such as "Puff the Magic Dragon" and Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Teach Your Children."

The concert grew from an idea by Nicole Church, whose mother Karen lives at the Lexington and watched through a first-floor doorway.

“My mom just loves the old folk music,” Church said. “I brought over the family songbook and she won’t give it back. So we just came up with some songs we thought most people here would like. It’s very lively, very cheerful. And we all had the day off to do it.”

The operations shift became more pronounced last week when the centers received a set of pandemic-fighting rules and guidelines that prohibited gatherings of multiple residents.

“All of a sudden, meal time wasn’t going to be social anymore and group activities had to end,” said Stephanie Farmer, director of customer relations at Ambassador Health. “The social distancing we’re all supposed to comply with is what the residents are supposed to be doing in their house.”

That prompted the Ambassador staff — and those at the other centers — to get together and come up with new ways to provide activities and social events with the residents mostly confined to their rooms.

So, at the Ambassador, bingo, Wheel of Fortune and horse racing became hallway games with residents sitting in the doorways of their rooms. The game boards on the small tables were equipped with walkie-talkies to call out “bingo” or solve the puzzle as a staff member read out the letters.

Many centers have had in-room parties and special food offerings. A daily ice cream cart rolls to each room at The Legacy.

“We had green beer for St. Patrick’s Day,” said Lexington Activities Director Julie Andresen said. “That went over great. Yesterday, we had a rolling banana split cart. We went from apartment to apartment and brought them banana splits. Things are a little bananas these days.”

The Lexington residents aren’t confined to their rooms all day. They can each go out walking in the building for 10 minutes, three times a day, and can spend up to 20 minutes of that time in the exercise room. "We have to schedule that because only one person is allowed in at a time,” Andresen said.

And the residents at all the centers get some contact with the outside world through family window visits — “We’ve even had people bring their dogs,” Farmer said — and through FaceTime calls.

Staff at the centers have been working individually with residents, teaching them how to use FaceTime. Just as important, the staff at the Ambassador is sitting and talking with concerned residents about the pandemic and its impact on them and their families.

“We’re not trained therapists or psychologists, but we’ve had some coaching and training,” Farmer said. “They (residents) watch the news, they read the paper and they talk to people about what’s going on. They’re concerned. To be able to have a staff member sit with a resident and talk through what they’re feeling is really important.”

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At Legacy, Semrad and McCracken wrapped up their first set with the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” and headed around the building, pushing a wheeled cart that carried a pair of speakers, McCracken’s battery-powered guitar amp and a small generator that powered the sound system.

“We’re going to push on to our next location,” Semrad told the listeners. "These are the fastest shows we’ve done in our lives. We’re going to load in and load out in 2 minutes.”

By the end of their hour-plus performance, the duo had circled the building, playing to residents in six different spots.

“This is amazing,” Semrad said. “I’ve never done anything like this before. You see the people all looking through their windows, coming out on the balconies, smiling and waving and clapping. (We're) bringing a little light and positivity from the outside in.”

Semrad and McCracken, who frequently play at nursing homes, are likely to perform outside the other Legacy Communities locations in the upcoming days and weeks, Joyce said.

And, for as long as the pandemic lasts, staff members at the centers will continue to come up with activities and programs to engage the residents to provide a little slice of happiness in a dark, confusing time.

“We’re going to have to get a little more creative,” Andresen said. “We usually get some baby chicks for Easter. Maybe we’ll let them keep them in their apartments overnight. Or maybe we’ll bring back cow pie bingo with pancakes. It’s just about trying to bring them joy, to make them happy, to see them smile.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott  

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott, the recipient of the 2018 Mayor’s Arts Award, has written about arts and entertainment for Lincoln newspapers since 1985, reviewing thousands of movies and concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions.

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