Tidings of comfort and joy

This is the time of year when we hear ubiquitous Christmas carols, the soundtrack of our holiday busy-ness, sing out “Joy to the World” and offer us “tidings of comfort and joy.” All too often, these sentiments create the background music while holiday preparations take center stage. I recently met Dominic Chianese, the multitalented entertainer who is perhaps best known for his twice Emmy-nominated portrayal of Corrado “Junior” Soprano on HBO’s series The Sopranos. In a delightful two-hour conversation, I learned from him how joy can bring comfort to our elders all year round.

Born in 1931, Dominic has spent the last 50-plus years not only as an actor, musician and entertainer, but also as a drama teacher in the New York City public schools and a member of the recreation staff of a nursing home. He is now working to fulfill a dream and leave a legacy that in his mind trumps all his previous artistic achievements.

His dream is coming true as a result of his company, Joy Through Art, which has a social mission of bringing professional musicians and actors to nursing homes. Supported by contributions to this worthy enterprise, these artists visit nursing homes five times a week and use their talents to form relationships with residents while singing, telling stories and conversing. The videos on his website show clearly how these visits create the unique joy that enriches peoples’ lives, dispel their loneliness and create family for those whose families are not nearby.

“Legacies come in many flavors,” wrote Phil Burgess, a correspondent for the Annapolis Capital Gazette. “They reflect the love, work and stewardship of a lifetime.” This is so true of Dominic. Talking to him, I saw on his face and heard in his sonorous voice how much his work was rooted in the artistic sensitivity and love of people. It is what makes the characters he has portrayed so real and complex. I also could understand that his dedication to his students and those who benefit from his recreational work is rooted in the same traits.

Legacies are created through our life’s work, whether we intend to create them or not. As Erik Erikson and Reb Zalmon Schachter-Shalomi both have written, later life is the time when working on one’s legacy by doing things to make the lives of others better is the developmental work that leads to mental wellness.

When Dominic spoke to me about Joy Through Art, he shared the wisdom he has derived from knowing how art connects people, whether on the stage, on TV, in films or in front of a classroom or a group of nursing home residents. Dominic is a teacher at heart; he also leads by his quiet but determined example and is a man who believes fervently that art cannot only entertain people but, more importantly, it can connect them so they might share joy.

Joy is necessary for mental wellness, but it is not typically an intentional part of the daily agenda in nursing homes. In the long-term care environment, we concentrate on care as our core business. Joy, if it is thought about at all, is too often an afterthought or a subject that might be discussed as a part of an elder’s personal history, but for some reason it is not expected to be part of his or her present.

So at this time of year, I wondered how it would be if, inspired by Dominic and Joy Through Art, joy became part of the foreground of the daily lived experience of elders in long-term care. We might create a “culture of joy” that lasts all year as a way to improve quality of life and continue to bring “tidings of comfort and joy” when the holidays are past. We could learn from Dominic’s work and use relationships so people could experience joy through food and joy through wellness, for example, in addition to Joy Through Art. I suspect that the impact of the care we provide would improve.

Joy Through Art is an example for us all and deserves success as well as our support. Inspired by Dominic’s legacy project, we could create legacies of joy in our own ways through meaningful relationships and what the psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” If you do a search on Dominic Chianase, don’t just watch the video of him portraying Uncle Junior (although that is great acting). Watch the clips where sings, talks about his career and entertains elders in nursing homes.

Joy to the World. Happy holidays!

Topics: Activities