Volunteer calls out nursing homes for not delivering

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

After five years, Gary Gamponia says he has had enough frustration. His message to nursing home administrators and activities directors would likely be, “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore” — if only he had enough leverage, that is.

When last we checked in on Gamponia, he was an accomplished musician being celebrated for gathering professional performers to entertain skilled nursing audiences in and around Los Angeles. The “Pay It Forward Band” was his calling card, and he was seeking to hand it to cities nationwide.

But now he's “at war” with the same people he's trying to help, he admits. After a deluge of requests for performances near and far, including Australia, his lament is that providers just aren't “getting” it.

“Five years, 700 shows in L.A. County alone … that's a lot of frustration,” Gamponia told me. “The complacency in this [skilled nursing] industry — some of our people say ‘greed' — is wearing us down week after week.”

Gamponia says after interviewing more than 300 activities directors and others around the country, he has found “practically no evidence” that operators are being proactive enough. He is astounded at the various excuses, suspicious questions and outright insults (“If you don't charge, you can't be very good”) that he has faced in response to offers of free concerts. It should be noted that some of the participating musicians and singers in southern California are recording industry award winners.

He says that sympathetic activities directors acknowledge that some resistance can be traced to “plain laziness.” He also complains that the “standard in the industry is set so low.”

“Why should they do more if none of the facilities in their area is doing more?” he asks.

In the next breath, he softens, noting, “Activities directors tend to be overworked and underpaid in relation to the other professionals in a SNF.”

Gamponia emphasizes that he and his fellow musicians aren't looking for personal fame, or wealth or even more jobs. His main point is that “Pay It Forward” bands are meant to be catalysts — a means to an end, but not necessarily the end itself. Skilled nursing residents deserve high-quality entertainment to look forward to every month, he stresses. Not just a couple of times a year, and definitely not just by a guy with an underpowered karaoke machine and voice.

“Entertainment is an essential element in everyone's quality of life. Actually, when you are 80 or 90 ears old and in a nursing home, this is even truer than when you are 20, 30 or 50 because there is no job to go to, often no sense of purpose and little freedom to pursue the diversions that used to make one happy,” Gamponia says. “Ultimately, the state of entertainment in most skilled nursing facilities does not reflect this fundamental truth. Also ignored is the therapeutic value of entertainment, especially musical entertainment.”

He points to this video as testimony, both direct and indirect, that nursing home residents need and want live music.

The standard ought to be a highlight event to look forward to once a month, he believes. Instead, talks with numerous activities directors and administrators have shown him that monthly budgets are being reduced, sometimes to as low as $150 or $100 per month, he says.

That could be either cutting off your nose to spite your face or penny-wise and pound foolish, depending upon your taste for clichés. It's also unacceptable, in Gamponia's eyes.

“Ten minutes or 10 dollars a day to transform the world in a SNF” is now his battle cry. The erstwhile insurance agent says $300 per month — just $10 per day — ought to be a no-brainer for an entertainment budget. He and colleagues have attended the annual convention of the California Association of Health Facilities the last two years to press their cause.

“It's time to seriously take it to the industry,” he says. “We are proud that we had the guts to say what needed to be said … even if they didn't want to hear it.”

The next five years will different from the first five, he promises.

“Actually, it doesn't have to cost any money if you put in a little extra effort,” he says. “Here's the thing about quality volunteer entertainment: It usually takes WORK to find that talent, schedule it and make it happen.”

Colleges, high schools, middle schools, Craig's List, private music schools and tutors — these and others offer a potential goldmine of talent, he points out.

Despite his disappointment in a perceived lack of support from skilled nursing professionals — and many fellow musicians who feel volunteer performances will “ruin” the profession for those trying to make a living at it — Gamponia's movement continues to grow. He said Pay It Forward bands will expand into three more metropolitan areas this year, raising the number to 14. Yet many major metro areas, such as Chicago, don't have one. Like a creative chef who only hears grunts for his intoxicating dishes, the well-intentioned bandleader sometimes wonders if the effort is worth it.

“The reason why this is transformative is NOT because of the 60 to 70 minutes of entertainment,” he explains. “It's transformative because if you were bringing something really special into your facility every month, there would always be something special for your residents to look forward to.”

His challenge, to put it succinctly, is that more is needed. But, he wonders, will it be delivered?

So what do you say, providers? Is $300 per month manageable for an entertainment budget? Or can you find 300 minutes to focus on better entertainment? Does Gamponia have a point? Please leave thoughts in the comment section below.

James M. Berklan is the Editor at McKnight's. Follow him @JimBerklan.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.