Upon hearing Ilona Harker sing, it’s hard to imagine that somebody with such an amazing voice derives more joy from watching others than she does from performing herself.

As an experienced singer-songwriter who has performed at major festivals like the Big Day Out and Splendor on the Grass, the experience that Ilona most enjoys may come as a bit of a shock.

“Sitting next to a 92-year old lady and watching the joy in her eyes as she proudly sings a song from when she was a child in front of her own family. That’s love and that’s sharing,” said Ms Harker.

“Moments like that are food for the soul that goes beyond me performing music personally.”

As the Project Manager of Health Entertainment Arts (HEARTS), Ilona is one of a growing number of creative engagement specialists that utilises a performance/art background to create immersive experiences that captivate audiences in aged care.

And of her most recent initiatives has been getting rave reviews from everyone in attendance.

The Rock of Ages Intergenerational Choir is a program that pairs elderly aged care residents with local primary school students who then teach each other to sing songs from their respective time periods.

This program runs across a twelve-week period and culminates with both residents and students singing in unison for a grand performance in front of adoring families and friends.

The most recent example of which, played out at a Whiddon aged care home in the rural NSW town of Casino.

“We pair each elder with a student who becomes their ‘buddy’ and they learn each other’s songs across the 12-weeks,” said Ilona.

“The performances at the end are such a joy to watch because you get to see the children figure out who they are and who they can be, and you can also watch as the elders rediscover a part of themselves.”

“We also discovered an elderly man who was non-verbal actually had an amazing ability to perform scat. So we made sure there was room for him to do a scat solo in the performance and be a part of things.”

Last year’s‘ Old People’s Home For 4-Year-Olds’ program on the ABC helped shed some much-needed spotlight on the mutual benefits that children and older people receive from being in each other’s company.

Unfortunately, both children and the elderly can often feel as though they go unheard, but intergenerational activities give both parties a sense of value and purpose that can forge close bonds.

“Last year one elderly gentleman began tearing up as he revealed that his young buddy told him that his father had recently left and that this had an impact on his confidence which made him too shy to perform,” said Ilona.

“The elderly man then revealed that he was in the process of helping the boy with his self-esteem, as he too had grown up without a father and was able to provide both guidance and a positive male role model.”

“When the program finished, both the boy’s parents and the facility have come together to ensure that the pair could continue their friendship.”

While it’s clear that the program has been empowering for both residents and children, Ilona has also discovered a number of amazing things throughout the program.

“One of my favorite songs was brought to me by an elderly woman from Walgett, NSW. She wanted to be a singer but her father made her marry the local baker,” said Ilona.

“She was standoffish at first, but when I eventually did get to know her I asked her If she could teach me a song and I was absolutely blown away.”

“The woman sang a song called Silver Threads Among The Gold. She had the most amazing vibrato, and her beautiful voice just had so much fragility and tenderness.”

Unfortunately, visitor restrictions put in place due to COVID-19 have put the Intergenerational choir on pause for the time being, but that has not stopped Ilona and those like her from continuing to spread joy in aged care communities.

Ilona Harker is a valuable member of the ‘Outside in Collective’ who are a group of talented Australian engagement specialists who have banded together as a result of COVID-19.

Members of the group possess a wide variety of creative skills and techniques which can be adapted to fit an outside setting and simultaneously engage an elderly audience that is looking on through the window.

Ilona and Dog

Like many creative engagement therapists, Ilona’s passion for engaging those in need was born out of both personal experience and natural ability.

“My mum had MS and I would always go to the MS Centre and perform,” said Ilona.

“Being a performer and having personally tried to ensure that my loved one felt connected and engaged while her cognition deteriorated, I found tools within myself that I didn’t know existed.”

“To me, it comes down to dignity really. I guess you might call it paying my rent on earth, but in the end, I have always felt that my duty is spreading the love amongst people who need it.”

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