At the Jewish Home, nighttime fun means a better sleep

On a recent Thursday night at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged, a lively accordionist squeezed out a medley of standards like "It Had To Be You," along with the Jewish standbys "Hava Nagilah" and "Havenu Shalom Aleichem."

The songs were traditional, but the performance itself was quite unorthodox — part of a regular series of events in a new pilot project at the Jewish Home to help residents sleep better at night.

"The idea is to keep people up longer so they have more satisfying sleep," says Mark Friedlander, the Home's director of activities, who oversees the evening activities program.

Noting that one other local senior home only offers sparse activities once weekly, he adds, "This is a pretty revolutionary approach."

This new attempt to induce better sleep patterns was born last fall, when Jay Luxenberg, the Home's medical director, noticed that a number of residents were coming to him with persistent sleep problems.

"People were requesting sleeping pills at 7 p.m. Your body only needs a certain amount of sleep, so people would get the pills, wake up around 2 or 3 in the morning, and then request another sleeping pill," Luxenberg says.

Worse, residents became more prone to accidents. "Inevitably," adds Mediatrix Valera, the Jewish Home's evening activities program coordinator, "there were incidents of falling" attributed to disrupted sleep.

When Luxenberg asked why residents went to sleep so early, many replied that they had nothing else to do, he recalls.

Some tried to watch television at low volume, but they couldn't hear it and didn't want to turn up the volume for fear of waking their neighbors.

"It became evident to me that sleeping pills weren't a great thing for elderly people. Rather than fiddling with pills, the simplest way to intervene was to find an activity that would enchant people," Luxenberg says.

A generous one-year gift from a relative of a Jewish Home resident gave Luxenberg the resources to try out his idea. And in the space of six months, what started as an experiment has become a treasured institution.

"If we have to cancel an event we get a very loud negative response," Friedlander says.

Adds Valera, "We've been getting a very positive response from the residents and their families."

Participants in the evening activities program recently were equally emphatic. "We're old people and we're asleep all day, so we need to get out at night," says resident Anna Cohen.

Etta Perkins, who also lives at the Home, adds that "music is the language of all nations. The accordion player didn't know Jewish music at first, but now he's learned the songs."

Luxenberg says the Home tries to run some evening activities in Russian, which many residents speak, but "we try to have music, which is universal."

In the Home's new effort to help residents sleep better without drug intervention, music is only one of several offerings. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, klezmer bands ranging from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music ensemble to the beloved accordionist command an audience of around 40, about one of every 10 residents. Mondays and Wednesdays feature bingo and blackjack games, while Friday brings an oneg Shabbat.

Staffers hope they can continue the program beyond next November, but doing so means finding new sources of funding, and keeping volunteer workers going.

Music remains one of the biggest draws of the evening program. One resident, setting aside his walker at accordion performance to dance to "Hava Nagilah," agreed.

"Music," he says, "is life." And ultimately, a restful sleep.