Home | Specialty Focus | Volunteer recognised for bringing the ‘magic’ of music into aged care homes
66-year-old Jeanette Ayre plays the guitar and sings at aged care homes and non-profit community care centre, Footprints in Brisbane. Picture: Supplied

Volunteer recognised for bringing the ‘magic’ of music into aged care homes

Brisbane-based and dedicated volunteer Jeanette Ayre has been honoured with a place on the Queen's Birthday awards list this year.

The Order of Australia Medal is well deserved as she's devoted over 40 years of her life to volunteering within the community.

With her bubbly personality and skill in music, she hops from room to room in aged care homes to lift the residents' spirits.

"It's just magic for me," the 66-year-old tells Aged Care Insite.

"[There are] people that don't know their own name with dementia, but they know every word to the song.

"Some people haven't sung ever, and you got them singing solos."

Mary Crest Retirement Home and Holland Park Aged Care staff have seen her come by every week over the past 15 years.

Although it can sometimes take a while for residents and staff to join in with her songs, she always finds a way to break the ice.

She recalls a particular moment when a man who'd had a tracheotomy was not asked to sing because of his condition.

"Everyone said he probably wouldn't want to, but I thought, I'll just give him the opportunity," Jeanette says.

"And next thing, he put his hand up and sang 'You Are My Sunshine' through his little microphone.

"At that time, I had to pretend it wasn't making me emotional."

It all started when she became the primary carer for her family friend and neighbour, Peter, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 55.

During his last nine months, he moved to a nursing home, and Jeanette visited him often.

"I would go to Peter, but all that time as well, I'd be playing the guitar and then go out to the other rooms," she shares.

"What I found was heartbreaking – people were starved for company.

"I was coming by for about six hours, but I kept increasing it because so many people needed a friend.

"I think where I felt I was needed the most was for people that didn't have families, and they were just alone there all the time."

Yet, she's also come across residents who took a bit longer to warm up to her.

One man told her to leave his room, only to ask one day why she was singing and playing the guitar in the dining area.

"He was so angry with life and God and all the rest of it," she shares.

"But he ended up being one of my dearest friends there, and it turned out that he'd really done it tough.

"In the end, it's just about talking to people and letting them tell their story."

Jeanette also frequently visits people in palliative care and those living with a mental illness at risk of homelessness.

She learned not to judge someone by her first impression when she met a man living in a nursing home whose family had never visited.

He was in palliative care and in the home to pass away.

"I said, ‘I can't believe how people dump their loved ones and go’.

"It turned out that he used to be a very violent alcoholic, but life had mellowed him because of the cancer.

"He said he hadn't been the nice guy he was today and told me his stories.

"It was almost like a reconciliation for him."

Developing these intimate relationships is one of the reasons Jeanette enjoys volunteering so much.

But she's also not afraid to show her vulnerable side, as she shares with Aged Care Insite why music is so special to her.

In 2018, she lost her son to a sudden brain haemorrhage.

"He came home from work with a headache, laid down and … never woke up again.

"After we buried Matthew, I thought I'd never smile again.

"But music saved my life – it just put me back on the planet."

She had to let another loved one go in July last year, with whom she often volunteered in the aged care homes.

"My mum used to come with me everywhere to all the nursing homes, and she would sing along, play the tambourine, and do things for me like that.

"She loved every minute of the volunteering as well.

"I guess I have my mum's personality."

On her mother's birthday, she received the letter of congratulations on winning the Order of Australia Medal.

"I believe it was a little bit of divine intervention," she says.

Initially, Jeanette was reluctant to accept the award as she felt she didn't deserve a medal for something she enjoyed doing so much.

"There are people out there doing amazing things, and I don't feel that's me. I'm not in it for that," Jeanette had told the lady calling from Government House in Canberra.

After she realised it would increase awareness and encourage more volunteers to help at the aged care homes, Jeanette accepted.

"It's been such an incredible honour for something I never expected. I'm extremely humbled by it.

"I hope this will inspire people – I would just love to see more volunteers come forth," she says.

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