But Elvis is there with them. And Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Glenn Miller and Glen Campbell (and Kelly Clarkson, too). The Eagles keep them company, and the Stones, even Pink Floyd.
On Radio Recliner, a new online radio station, the DJs are elderly folks who have spent the past two months stuck in their rooms, meals delivered to their doors, activities canceled, their relatives relegated to waving through a window, at best. At a time of great fear and risk — old-age home residents make up about 40 percent of the nation’s deaths from the virus — the disc jockeys get to tell stories of better times as they spin their favorite tunes, from Elvis and ’40s big band tunes to ’60s rock (including the hard stuff) and a whole lot of love songs.
“We don’t have time to be sad, not at our age,” DJ M&M — real name: Marion Murray — tells her audience of nursing home residents and the relatives who worry about them. “We got to keep moving. It’s too important to just sit in a chair and fall asleep.”
Virginia Hawsey, broadcasting as DJ Ginger Bee, describes the imaginary road trips she and her next-door neighbor take from their rooms to the beach. Theresa Carter chose DJ Happy Feet as her on-air moniker because, even at 89, she still believes in the power of dance, in how a rumba can electrify even the loneliest person.
They’re stuck in rooms where the TV delivers a diet of disease and fear, and the phone cannot replace the hugs and laughs that used to be just down the hall. Yet on Radio Recliner, the tunes are chipper, the patter is cheery, and the people behind the microphones are chock full of stories that put this whole wretched mess out of mind, at least for a bit.
The DJs have been here before — not precisely, but close enough. They spent childhood summers trapped inside because going out meant being exposed to the polio virus. They suffered months-long interruptions of love affairs because their fella was shipped off to war. And in the last chapter of their lives, they ended up in these places — pleasant enough, they say, but still, a difficult, final pivot from homes they knew and loved.
Every hour of Radio Recliner is packed with what was on the air when they first fell in love, when they learned that heartache is one of those words that doesn’t come close to describing what it really feels like.
“Isolation is really a hard thing for seniors in the best of times,” said Mitch Bennett, chief creative officer at Luckie, the marketing company that puts together Radio Recliner for Bridge Senior Living, a company that owns about two dozen retirement homes. “Now they can’t even get together and see each other for meals. But they all grew up with this dedication-style radio, where you can send a message to loved ones and tell stories with music, and it’s a kind of magic. And most of them are literally doing it from their recliners.”
Anyone can listen to the station at RadioRecliner.com, but the target audience is the more than 2 million Americans who live in old-age facilities and the many more family members who have been unable to visit elderly relatives since the virus hit hard. Relatives can call in, record their requests and dedicate songs to isolated elders.
About three dozen DJs have recorded sets, originally from homes owned by Bridge, but now from facilities across the country. They perform their patter by phone, and professional producers then insert the music and the Radio Recliner jingle and stitch together shows that stream around-the-clock.
These first-time DJs know what to do. They grew up listening to shows like the “Make Believe Ballroom,” whose DJ pretended to be the emcee at a swanky Manhattan nightclub where the hottest bands played every night; and Wolfman Jack’s growling narration of the night from a pirate station somewhere deep in Mexico; and Cousin Brucie’s teen club of the airwaves, where every kid in the country was your cuz and Brucie was the older kid who made you feel better when that guy in English class wouldn’t return your glance.
Now the kids who listened to those shows are taking their turn playing the songs they danced to when they met the One.
Carter, sitting in her rooms at the Somerby home in Mobile, Ala., chose the big band sounds she listened to as a little girl in the Bronx. She’d jitterbug around her apartment when Harry James’s band came on “Make Believe Ballroom” on WNEW.
“I married a man who didn’t like to dance,” she said. “But I made him promise, whenever we went to a wedding, he had to dance with me at least once.”
They were married for 58 years before he died 11 years ago. He always kept his promise.
Now alone, working on crossword and jigsaw puzzles, doing exercises along with an instructor on TV, Carter will play a tune and “even at this stage of the game, I’ll do a little step,” she said. “Some people don’t know how to spend the time. The loneliness is the hardest part of being old. But it’s about how you accept it. I’ve always kept myself busy. And I have the Lord, and I’m okay with him.”
Murray, 79, used her time on Radio Recliner to recall the music she and her husband shared. “We were young, and he used to sing ‘Peggy Sue’ to me,” DJ M&M tells her audience. “When he sang that to me, he would just make my heart . . . just melt. He did sing that so good. It was just perfect.”
She sings it out: “Peggy Sue, I love you,” and she giggles, and her voice, grown scratchy through the years, fades, and up comes Buddy Holly, eternally young, romancing Peggy Sue, “with a love so rare and true.”
This is a rough time, M&M says, but she urges listeners to remember what makes life still worth living. For her, it’s Bubbles the cat, her only companion in her room at the Enclave in Franklin, Mass.
“I dedicate ‘Tiny Bubbles’ to my Bubbles because she’s a wonderful cat and I love her dearly, with all my heart,” she says. “She sleeps with me. She sits in the chair with me. I mean, we’re just buddies.” And Don Ho’s 1967 lounge hit “Tiny Bubbles” swells, the crooner singing of “a feeling that I’m gonna love you till the end of time.”
Some of the DJs are in hospice care and some are in memory wards, reserved for people who have lost much of their identities. But give them their music, and some piece of their former selves emerges, Bennett said.
“The music gives them a direct line to their deepest memories,” he said. “This is just the most special thing I’ve been involved with in my career.”
The music helps, but still, this isolation stinks. Hawsey, 82, who lives in a Somerby independent living facility in Birmingham, Ala., makes no bones about it: “I’m ready for them to let us out,” she said. She’s been stuck in her apartment since March 13. Her daughter, who lives nearby, can’t visit, except to stand on the sidewalk below Hawsey’s balcony.
No lunches out. No church. No canasta. No visits from the musicians who would come to play guitar and sing with the residents.
She remembered the summer she was 12, when her older sister could go to the movies, but Virginia had to stay inside because polio was raging, a virus that hit little kids hardest. Her sister graduated from high school that spring, and her father went to the ceremonies, but “Mother wouldn’t leave me, so she didn’t go.”
“Same thing this year,” Hawsey said. “Our granddaughter is graduating here, but her parents are in South Africa, and they can’t be here.”
The loneliness is searing enough that when the home’s lifestyle director offered Hawsey the chance to be a DJ, she put aside her shyness and signed up for a visit to her past.
“We didn’t have TV till I was in the 10th grade,” she said. “We listened to the radio a lot.” Her station was WJHO in Opelika, Ala., which played lots of Elvis, though, truth be told, no amount was enough.
There was no question what Hawsey’s show would sound like. “I was just an Elvis fan,” she said. “He was the highlight of our days.”
On Radio Recliner, Hawsey spins the hits, including “All Shook Up” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” (“Do you remember who you were dancing with when you heard that song?” she asks in her intro.) She throws in lesser-known numbers, such as “Wooden Heart,” the B side of “Blue Christmas,” on which Presley sang several lines in German.
There’s an Elvis for every turn in her life. In 1957, she was a teacher in Apopka, Fla., and she came home to Alabama for the summer. Her boyfriend visited for a weekend, and her younger sister, eager for him to propose marriage to Virginia, played Presley’s “Treat Me Nice” all weekend.
“Don’t you ever kiss me once, kiss me twice,” Elvis sang. “Treat me nice.”
The song didn’t do the trick, Hawsey tells listeners. “It still took him a year and a half to come about” and pop the question, she says, but the song remained theirs. They were married for 53 years, until Shelton died three years ago.
There’s an Elvis for this crazy time, too.
“I don’t know with the virus if we’re going to get out anywhere this summer,” Hawsey says, “but we can always dream. With my neighbor next door, I dreamed these last two months: We’ve been to the beach, we’ve been to North Carolina — all in our dreams. We’ve talked about what we saw on the way and how tired we were and how we enjoyed seeing the waves come in . . . ”
Her voice drifts off, and Elvis beckons, in the 1961 song “Blue Hawaii”: “Come with me / While the moon is on the sea / The night is young / And so are we, so are we.”
The DJs try not to be overbearing about it, but the topic of coping with the isolation creeps into nearly every show.
“Whenever you’re bored or lonely, you just think about singing,” DJ M&M says. “I don’t mind if you make up a song, like I do.” In addition to singing, Murray prescribes puzzles and knitting; she’s made a dozen hats so far and is working on a blanket.
For Radio Recliner, she put together a six-page list of tunes to share. She plays Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” a catalogue of places you can’t go these days: “I’ve been everywhere, man / Crossed the deserts bare, man / I’ve breathed the mountain air, man / Of travel I’ve a’had my share, man.”
Murray loves the road, too, but she’s all for the great indoors right now.
“I loved the ocean, too, but please, we’re in our rooms,” she said. “We’re free of the virus here, knock on wood. Some people here want their lives back the way they were. I tell them, look, this is serious business, you don’t want to die. This is a good place to live, not to die.”