October 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many elderly citizens, living in a retirement community or a nursing home can be a lonely existence, what with being cut off from family, old friends, and—what sometimes seems like—the outside world. Several factors can keep someone from being able to leave the senior facility, whether it be physical immobility or mental functioning, which can often inhibit residents from being able to enjoy the leisure activities they used to—going to movies, visiting with people in the community, or watching musical performances. But one nonprofit organization is dedicated to brightening the lives of those very seniors by bringing the music and laughter to them.

Merrymakers Association began serving seniors in nursing homes in 1986 after a local entertainer met with a group of Omaha businessmen to form the organization. Slowly but surely, this effort to provide the elderly with live, musical entertainment grew. Today, Merrymakers serves more than 40,000 seniors with free, musical entertainment annually. In 2012 alone, more than 100 facilities received Merrymakers musical programming.

Most senior facilities have a limited budget for activities for their residents; the cost of providing entertainment can use up most of the activities budget. In addition, many facilities have seen a dramatic decline in the number of musicians available to provide free or affordable entertainment for their residents. This is why Merrymakers never charges for their performances, and instead relies on donations from the community.

Merrymakers is all about fun in Executive Director Tricia Cottrell’s view. “While there are many wonderful and caring individuals and groups, who are willing to give their time and talent at senior-serving entities by volunteering to perform, we ‘take it up a notch’ by making sure our entertainers are trained professionals, who are in demand in the community at large,” she says. “We make a specific effort to provide the seniors with the music of their youth—to bring back the memories of that first dance at their wedding, the song they heard at their senior prom, or the one they sang to the children.”

GALA Merry Makers

Cottrell has been leading Merrymakers for the last two-and-a-half years. After a long career in business, she made the switch to nonprofit work. “I am a musician myself—third generation of the now five generation of musicians in my family…I love working with creative people and have a strong interest in seniors and their well-being. [Merrymakers] was a perfect fit for me…I have jokingly said I intend to still be leading the organization when I am living at one of the facilities we service.”

Cottrell’s very first “mission moment” occurred when a resident’s daughter thanked Merrymakers for the performance of WWII songs. “Her mother had severe dementia and had become disconnected from much of what was happening, but she sang all the words to the songs of her youth. Our performance allowed this daughter to have her mother present in the moment for the entire hour, and that is a gift I would gladly give anyone.”

Like many in Merrymakers, Cottrell knows that music is often used with the elderly to increase levels of physical, emotional, and mental functioning. The sensory and intellectual stimulation of the music can help maintain or improve a person’s quality of life.

“How a community treats their elders is an indicator of the health of the community as a whole. If we warehouse people and treat them as useless, we make a statement about what we value,” asserts Cottrell. “While the arts may not be as critical as health care, housing, or food, we truly believe that we provide sustenance for the mind and for the soul of these seniors and that their feelings of joy are just as critical to their well-being.”

Merrymakers is home to 14 professional entertainers of all ages and backgrounds with their own unique styles of performance. Two such performers include vocalist and guitarist Kim Eames and vocalist Physha.

Kim Eames has been with Merrymakers for eight years now. She got involved after another entertainer, Joe Taylor (a.k.a. “Mr. Memories”), who has been there for 18 years, had her audition. “I was the only female at that time,” she says. “They had four men, and they were looking to gather up some female entertainers.”

“How a community treats their elders is an indicator of the health of the community as a whole. If we warehouse people and treat them as useless, we make a statement about what we value.” – Tricia Cottrell, executive director with Merrymakers Association

Born and raised in Omaha, Eames has been performing for 40 years. After getting her first guitar at age 11, Eames threw herself into the musical world, playing weddings, private parties, lounges, and even heading out on the road. Since then, she has gained a performance reputation in Omaha after having performed at La Festa Italiana, Taste of Omaha, and other shows for businesses and corporations.

Eames likes to play different kinds of music. “My music usually spans from the 1920s to early 2000s, which allows me to play so many different things. I don’t call myself a country singer or a ‘50s singer. I try not to pinpoint any genre.” Eames says that because an audience is always filled with different people, a performer can’t play one kind of music because it will only hit a few people.

During her time with Merrymakers, Eames has heard her fair share of good memories from audience members. “I love hearing about their lives—what they did and who they are. A guy I met played in the brass section for Dinah Shore, and a woman I met danced for USO shows and knew Bob Hope personally…I love these unique stories. It’s amazing what you hear. I always come home with a lot more than I left with.”

Like Eames, vocalist Physha loves hearing stories and getting to meet the residents in her audience. “[A few months ago], I sang for a lady named Mary, who was 105 years old,” she says. “She said to me that those were tunes she hadn’t gotten to hear in some time. To see someone who has lived their life—who has paved the way from their time—respond like that…just the effect of music bringing them back to that time is an indescribable feeling.”

Physha has been with Merrymakers for a little more than two years. “I started a business called Classic Impressions Musical Entertainment a couple years ago, and I had been going to retirement communities to perform. Tricia Cottrell happened to be visiting the retirement community where I was performing one night. She saw my show and asked if I’d want to be a Merrymaker.”

GALA Merry Makers

Although she has only been performing for two years with Merrymakers, Physha is no stranger to the entertainment industry. After having been a model from a young age, she performed in musicals and with bands all over the Midwest. “I was born and raised here, so I’ve always come back to my stomping grounds.”

Physha likes to engage her audience during her performances. “I make sure they’re having a good time with me, so I’ll bring hand instruments like tambourines to get them involved.” As for her music, she generally performs songs from any genre between the 1920s and current time, but she bases her performances around her audience. “Ninety-five percent of my audience is in retirement communities, so my music is really about what they want to hear. I love seeing them smile as they tap their toes and sing along. To see that in the height of Alzheimer’s and dementia is truly amazing.”

Physha believes music is a universal language that brings people together and always has. “Everyone can relate to music,” she adds.

Merrymakers hold performances year-round at many different locations. They will also hold their Annual Roast on Nov. 8 with Sid Dinsdale, President and Chairman of Pinnacle Bank, as the guest of honor. Some of the past honorees at the Annual Roast include Governor Ben Nelson, Mayor Mike Fahey, Mary Maxwell, Bruce Lauritzen, and Walter Scott. The event will take place at Embassy Suites La Vista from 6-9pm, and all proceeds will go to help Merrymakers Association’s mission.

For more information, visit merrymakers.org or call 402-697-0205.