OPINION: The music of the ages

Kathy Mattea did a touching song some years back about couples and aging. "Where've You Been'' is the story of Claire and Edwin and their lifetime together. Midway through the song, Mattea sings, "They'd never spent a night apart. For 60 years sh...

Terry Woster

Kathy Mattea did a touching song some years back about couples and aging.

"Where've You Been'' is the story of Claire and Edwin and their lifetime together. Midway through the song, Mattea sings, "They'd never spent a night apart. For 60 years she heard him snore. Now they're in a hospital in separate beds on different floors.''

I thought of those lyrics as Nancy and I sat with her mother in the long-term care center in Chamberlain, listening to a talented local kid sing and play for the residents. The musician, Jack, visits the center every Friday afternoon. He started playing in bands back in high school, I think, and he has made music pretty much his whole life. A kid learns a lot of songs that way.

At the center on Fridays, Jack arrives just before 2 p.m., turns on the keyboard and microphone and plays and sings until 3 p.m. Many of the songs are oldies. Some of them are way, way oldies. He tosses in a few relatively recent tunes and some funny, gimmicky stuff like "Oh, Lord, It's Hard to be Humble.'' His fingers and voice glide seamlessly from song to song. He keeps the volume comfortably low on the keyboard and matches that with his vocals. All in all, it's a relaxing and enjoyable break in a Friday afternoon, and somewhere up there a reward is waiting for this piano man.

It is a pretty significant offering of time and talent in a community that, like the rest of South Dakota, is slowly growing older. Census data and demographic charts show the median age in the Rushmore State is steadily creeping higher. In 24 of South Dakota's 66 counties, at least 20 percent of the population is age 65 or older, one report says.


I can't judge whether every resident who attends the Friday concerts enjoys the music. I know Nancy's mom gets a kick out of it, and I can see that some of the other residents gathered in the great room are mouthing words, tapping toes and nodding heads in time to the tempo of Jack's left hand on the bass lines. Something in the music reaches across time and age.

One resident, a gentleman I'd known most of my life in the old hometown, has been at the center a while and often seems in a world of his own. The other afternoon, as Jack tickled the keys to start a swing tune, the man lifted his head. He smiled, his hands began clapping to the beat and he softly started to sing. I'm no lip-reader-or mind-reader, for that matter-but it sure looked like he knew the lyrics and found some joy in the song.

Jack hasn't played the Kathy Mattea tune when I've visited, but it would fit. I watched a couple across the room holding hands as they listened to the music. The woman shifted her chair so she could make eye contact, and, clasping each other's hands, they swayed gently in time to the music, as if they were alone together on a dance floor.

I'm pretty sure this isn't the way, as young people, they pictured the late stage of their life, but there it is.

One estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau says that more than 27 percent of South Dakota's population will be over age 60 by the year 2030. That's an increase of 38 percent from when the estimate was made in 2012. And that estimate is for all of South Dakota, not just the 24 counties I mentioned earlier. The out-migration of young adults leaves the older citizens behind, to continue to grow older and to require more services and greater care.

South Dakota has focused for a long while on alternatives to long-term or nursing-home care, alternatives that allow an aging citizen to stay at home longer or find an assisted living facility and a moderate level of care, rather than a full-care nursing home. At some point, though, long-term care becomes necessary. When that happens, it's nice if the care can include an afternoon of soft music and memories now and then.

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