Music Student in Tune with Life at Retirement Community

A young pianist pursuing two master’s degrees is benefitting as much as seniors through her unique living arrangement.

By Denise DiStephan

When Beth Christensen, a 25-year-old pianist pursuing two master’s degrees in music, finishes a piano concert, the applause isn’t from strangers. It’s from her friends.

The audience is not packed with college buddies, dorm mates or kids she’s known since junior high. It consists of her new friends and neighbors at Claridge Court, a Lifespace retirement community in Prairie Village, Kansas, just outside Kansas City, that hosts Christensen as a musician-in-residence. It’s all part of the community’s new initiative, having a young musician live with the residents so they can benefit from regularly hearing her rehearse and perform concerts where she plays piano and sometimes sings. Moreover, it’s for a young artist and seniors to befriend each other.

Bill Saylor and Beth Christensen
Resident Bill Saylor and Beth Christensen

“I’ve made so many friends here,” Christensen said in a recent telephone interview. “I think what surprised me the most is that I have something in common literally with everybody. I have different things in common with different people. I haven’t met a single person I don’t share something with. We’re all human. We’re all the same that way.”

The unique living arrangement allows for Christensen to have free room and board as she pursues her advanced degrees – one in collaborative piano performance and piano pedagogy (teaching) and one in performance — at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Conservatory. The school partnered with Claridge on the initiative. Christensen started living at Claridge in June and will stay at least until the end of the school year.

Community tied to the arts scene

Rob Salierno, executive director of Claridge, a community of 125 independent living units and a 45-bed skilled nursing facility, said he and the residents are delighted with the new arrangement, which started when he heard about another Lifespace community in Iowa doing a similar initiative and felt it would be perfect for Claridge.

“Claridge Court is intertwined with the Kansas City arts and music scene,” he noted. “Some of our residents are on the boards of musical institutions in the area and our residents are very giving by nature.” Some have donated to various musical entities in the region, in addition to attending performances, he said.

“Music is a big part of their lives and of the community’s life,” Salierno continued. So when an apartment became available, it opened up an opportunity to bring a young person into the community who could not only entertain residents, but who could befriend them, he said. The experience, he said, has shown that “age is just a number. You can find special relationships regardless of age.” Also, when seniors gather together to listen to Christensen’s rehearsals or concerts, the socialization is beneficial for them, he added.

Salierno found Christensen by connecting with Mary Kay and Charlie Horner, residents of Claridge Court, who have personal ties to the UMKC Conservatory. Through their shared vision and connections, the groundwork was laid for the collaboration.

Salierno interviewed Christensen and felt she had the type of personality perfectly suited to living at Claridge and being open to making new friends. So she was selected as the first young artist to live at Claridge, where she didn’t know anyone.

“It was a little scary moving in because of that, but then I realized how kind and friendly everyone was,” Christensen said.

“Beth is amazing,” Salierno said. “She’s a special person. She’s brought a real burst of excitement and fun. Her musical gifts, coupled with the opportunities for meaningful interactions, significantly enhance the quality of life for everyone involved.”

“We are absolutely thrilled to have Beth become a part of our community,” said Mary Kay Horner, who, with her husband, Charlie, found Christensen as a candidate for the new position. “Seeing this partnership come to life and witnessing the connections she’s already forged with the residents is incredibly gratifying. Her talents and companionship bring a unique vibrancy to our community, fostering a sense of togetherness and shared growth.”

The first of many to come

Salierno said he would like to host other musicians or artists in the future, continuing the model of having one young person who, like Christensen, is open to befriending and living among the residents. Claridge suspended its requirement that residents must be at least 62 years old so that Christensen could live there, Salierno said.

Beth Christensen performing for residents of Claridge Court.
Beth Christensen performing for residents of Claridge Court.

Christensen, while studying classical music, also has experience as a jazz pianist and has toured with her jazz band. She grew up playing flute and percussion in her school’s marching band and plays guitar “casually,” she said. She earned her undergraduate degree in piano performance and played in a jazz band at Brigham Young University.

So far, she has not done any one-on-one piano lessons with residents, but she and Salierno said that might be possible in the future.

Outside of Claridge, Christensen has taught piano to all  ages in the area as well as in Utah where she grew up.

The arrangement is a “win-win,” Salierno said. “It’s an opportunity for a student to connect with some very successful people at this community and for her to get free room and board. And, for the community, the bonuses are that there is a lot of fun, enjoyment and excitement around the program. Beth does a concert once a month, goes places with residents and she even got dunked in a dunk tank at an event.”

When asked what made her interested in living in a retirement community, Christensen said, “I really value intergenerational relationships. I grew up in a really older-aged neighborhood, with a lot of adoptive grandparents, so I always felt comfort with older folks. On top of that I love to share music. I felt like it would be the perfect overlapping position for me. I have a passion for sharing what I love.”

Christensen performed a concert at Claridge a few months before she moved in to get a feel of how she would fit in there. That went well and led to her moving in during the early summer. This gave her time to make connections with people in the community before the school year started making more demands on her time.

Currently, residents are able to listen to her many times during the course of the semester. That includes her weekly, hour-long rehearsals at Claridge’s performance space, once a month when she plays background music at the community health center and once a month at a cocktail party. Also, four times per semester, she does a monthly, formal concert with her fellow students at UMKC Conservatory.

Christensen also engages in activities with residents, such as chair yoga, chair volleyball, sharing meals in common dining areas and socializing over cocktails twice a week.

Friendships across generations

Christensen said she has learned a lot from the residents and many have done her favors. For example, a resident with experience teaching students with special needs gave her tips that helped her teach piano, even though her piano pupils are not special needs.

Another resident designed an outfit for Christensen when she had to do a photo shoot with her quartet. “And her name is Barbie, so that’s fun!” Christensen said.

“I get excited to hang out with the residents here,” Christensen said. “I love doing yoga with them, eating breakfast with them and taking walks and talking to them. If I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t have time to become friends with them and those friendships are really important.”

She also plays croquet, badminton and other outdoor games.

Christensen said she would encourage seniors in general, to enjoy music, especially if they can do it in a group “for a happy and a healthy life, for the intellectual stimulation. Music stimulates the brain and makes a lot of connections. Music therapy helps with memory. It’s also such a community thing whether performing together or listening together. It’s so important for mental health, I found that in my own life, that’s it’s really nourishing.”

Some residents play instruments, mostly piano, Christensen said.

 

Resident Susanne Shutz has enjoyed Christensen’s musical contributions and friendship, sharing dinners and chats.

“Beth’s presence at Claridge Court has been an absolute delight,” Shutz said. “Looking ahead to the coming year, my hope is for every member of our community to embrace this unique chance to learn and bond across generations. As a grandmother with grandchildren near Beth’s age, I enjoy spending time with such an exceptional young individual. Beth’s kindness and engaging nature make her a wonderful companion, and I’m eagerly anticipating the continued growth of our friendship.”

Andrew Granade, Associate Dean of Academic and Faculty Affairs and Professor of Musicology at UMKC said, “The conservatory is deeply embedded in the Kansas City community, so finding ways to connect with local partners and both give back to the community and have our students learn from the community is extremely important to us. We think our students study in Kansas City, not just on campus. This idea seemed a natural fit.”

Denise DiStephan is an award-winning, veteran journalist and communications professional based in New Jersey. 

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