Senior talent on display


From behind a sparkling silver curtain June 30 emerged Eileen Grant in a red jacket and black fedora, her left hand gloved in silver, dancing and swinging her hips to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” while fellow residents of the Emeritus at Deep Run retirement home and community members laughed and clapped.

Grant and other residents, volunteers and community members were participating in the first national Bring Your Talent contest, hosted by Emeritus Senior Living and part of elder care expert Dr. Marion Somers' tour with the 3in4 Association, a non-profit organization working to increase awareness about the planning for long-term care. The 50 city tour will end July 25 in Phoenix, A.Z. and the contest winner will be chosen from all the video submissions and taped tour stops by Aug. 13. The winner could receive a year of free rent or one of 11 week-long stays at an Emeritus community.

Grant was born in 1928 in Brooklyn, N.Y. as Eileen O'Connor, the third-oldest of 10 children in an Irish family. During World War II she traveled with other dancers and comedians and pros such as Mel Brooks and Eddie Fisher entertaining the troops.

“I loved it. I was doing it from the time I was this high," Grant said, lowering her hand toward the floor. "If you’re a performer, you’re born a performer.”

Grant’s daughter, Shelley Damion, who attended the show last week but sat on the side so as to not to be a distraction, said she hoped her mother would win.

“She’s always been the most entertaining, even at parties,” Damion said. “She choreographed my high school production of ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ I think it was the best one we had ... I wasn’t in it.”

Every Friday, Grant, who is a memory care patient, practices ballroom dancing with instructor Phyllis Harris, who helped co-choreograph her dance.

“It’s really exciting to see them come out of their shells,” Harris said. “It’s hard to watch them get older. . . She comes down when she feels like it.”

Harris was supposed to perform with Grant the day of the show, but because other entries dropped out, Grant had to perform before Harris had arrived. Filling in for Harris was Nick Nevi, the life enrichment assistant at Emeritus, and one of Grant’s biggest fans.

“She’s got spunk,” he said the day before the contest. “She’s very talented. She’s my hopeful. I know she could really knock the house down. . . She deserves one year rent free.”

Nevi said he hoped that if she didn’t win, that one of the other Deep Run residents would.

“When our residents do what they love it, rejuvenates them,” he said. “I really admire our residents for doing this.”

The Thursday before the contest, Harris and Nevi made a video music video of Grant’s performance in case she got nervous the day of or resisted because of her memory.

Private duty caregiver Demetra White said she had seen the end of the videotaping.

“When I saw her get up and these moves, she seemed so much younger, “ White said. “My mouth was just open. If she doesn’t win, I’ll be surprised.”

During the practice, Grant pulled White onto the dance floor despite White’s protests. By then, Grant had kicked off her shoes and was dancing barefoot with free-style moves, something White said Grant usually did.

Old photos of Grant dancing and acting in the 1940s lined the walls of the dining room, where the stage was set for the performance on Saturday. In one or two, Grant’s bare feet could be seen. Grant said she had learned to dance after attending dances with soldiers on Governors Island, where her older sister had a job.

“It was the kind of music where we’d go dancing and the gentleman would swing me over his head, around his back and between his legs,” she said. “I was young and had a wonderful time. . . It’s been a lot of years, but I had a wonderful life. I loved the life I lived. Isn’t that a song?”

In her opening speech Saturday, Somers introduced herself as a girl from a rough neighborhood in East Harlem, N.Y., who grew up in a five-story walk-up filled with seniors. Somers said that there was always something to learn from her elders, especially how to live.

“You don’t get to be 80, 90, or 100 years old without knowing how to live,” she said.

On a trip to China, Somers met a 104-year-old woman who she asked to share with her one thing she’d learned. The woman responded, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

“I asked the interpreter what she meant,” Somers said. “What she meant was, your husbands and kids are going to do what they’re going to do, just do what you can do.”

Having a balanced and steady approach to addressing long-term care is key, as it is to addressing life, she said.

“I like to say that I have been blessed living with seniors,” Somers said. “I live a very blessed life because I’ve learned not to get obsessed about the nonsense stuff, and when you think about it, most of it is nonsense.”

Somers went on to emphasize that everyone is a caregiver at some time in his or her life, whether it is for a little sister or for parents.

“Three in four Americans will need long-term care at sometime in their lives, and we are not ready,” Somers said.

Sixteen percent of caregivers die before those for whom they are caring, she said, emphasizing the importance of being organized during the caregiving process. She went through an A-Z list of quick things for care givers to remember; among them: “Trust the elder you’re caring for, and trust your basic caregiving instincts,” and “Understand that being a caregiver requires patience.”

“Talking about elderly care is not a sexy subject, so to remind people is necessary,” she said. “Nobody wants to talk about aging or maybe being infirm. It’s always over there, another person, but that other person could be you.”
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