The Music of Love Makes Hearts Sing in the Village
You could say Catholic Eldercare’s (CEC) Steve Johnson and Recording Artist Stevie Wonder have something in common. They both sing Songs in the Key of Life. For Wonder, it was a hit album. For Johnson, it’s being a hit among the residents in memory care at RiverVillage East.
With a heart for kindness and spreading joy, Activities Director Steve Johnson begins his shift with music. There is no accompaniment, other than the love that fuels every song he sings with residents. “Music gets their attention, so I start the day with singing and a prayer before moving to other activities. The residents are more focused after singing.”
After 30 years at Ford Motor Company, when the plant shut down, Steve went in search of volunteer work. “I always wanted to volunteer; to give of myself without anything in return,” he explains. “I consider myself divinely guided, and while on a walk one day, God guided me to the door of RiverVillage.” Steve asked if he could volunteer, and soon after, started working in the CEC coffee shop where he served and sang to resident customers. It is here that he found his true calling. “God puts us in the place where we are meant to be, and this is the place for me.” After serving as a volunteer, Steve applied and accepted a position as activities director, where he has daily focused time with residents. “Every day before I leave my house, I pray that I’m divinely guided, and will bring joy into people’s lives.”
Kind support from memory care families is welcomed and keeps Steve going. “Sometimes they sit in and help with activities. They are often complementary, which reinforces that I’m doing things right,” he explains. “I’ve become kind of a fixture in many of our families, which is challenging when someone passes away.”
Cecilia is former resident with whom he says he had a strong connection for many years. “She knew every song you could possibly know, and we would sing together as we walked down the halls. She nicknamed me “Stephano,” and staff still calls me that.” Steve and Cecilia also shared their Polish heritage, and they would share the polish greeting every time they saw each other, something that is reserved for very special people. Steve recalls, Dzień dobry (Good morning/Good afternoon) and Jak się masz? (How are you?) “Many people at RiverVillage speak another language, so I try to learn to learn a few words in each language.”
Steve says he was also close to Luba Perchyshyn, the Ukrainian egg artist of Northeast. “She would teach me Ukrainian words and we would talk to each other. Her son would help us play bingo. The whole family was wonderful and appreciated the happiness I brought to their mother.”
At RiverVillage East, memory care residents have their own apartment, which Steve describes as one of the beautiful things about living there. “It’s a home where they can have pictures on the wall and be surrounded by things they love that make them happy and comfortable.”
Describing his care of people with Alzheimer’s, Steve says it’s organic, creative, and flowing. “Every day brings a different situation, and you need to have an innate sense of how to handle it. Sometimes staff has problems with people not taking their meds. For some reason, I can magically get them to take them. I ask myself how I can turn this person from unhappy to happy.”
When Covid hit, Steve had to come up with creative ideas on how to do his job, at one point, going room to room to visit residents, and changing gowns and masks before entering every room. “Suddenly, everything I had done for 12 years, changed. I was washing and folding gowns and channeling my creativity on visiting and comforting people.”
Steve also finds comfort at RiverVillage. My mother and father have passed away, and my siblings live out of town, so I have no family here,” he says. “The residents remind me of my mother, father, aunts, and uncles, and I treat them as I would those family members. I value their humor, their Ole and Lena jokes, and of course their familiar songs. So, until the younger generation comes in and wants to sing Stairway to Heaven, we’ll keep singing Let me Call You Sweetheart.
RiverVillage has a neighborhood feel, and some of Steve’s Northeast neighbors now live there. He says it seems like everyone he talks to has had someone they love in memory care. “I always say that I’m going to keep working here, so when my time comes, I might get a discount on a room.” Given the gratitude he expresses for his colleagues, he will continue to be happy here. “They always go the extra mile. We’re a team, and we help each other out. I do things that aren’t in my job description, like taking out the trash, because I love working at CEC, and I want it to be the best place in town.”
Steve knows he’s making a difference in the lives of people at RiverVillage East. They hug him when he leaves, and wave goodbye from their apartment windows. At the end of the day, it’s about love. “I’m working with the angels and am blessed to do purposeful work,” he says with gratitude in his voice. “Sometimes I’m the last bit of love and joy that these people experience prior to passing. I didn’t realize this would be such a meaningful job, but it is.”