Photos of Kareen, Emilou, and Friends

Virtual Interactions, Real Love

Kareen King is a creative engagement specialist for older adults. She works with two retirement communities and one memory care home on a weekly basis, as well as speaking and performing for carers across the country.

In her work with older adults, both with and without dementia, she generally meets with groups of twelve to eighteen people. They sit in a semi-circle; as Kareen puts it, “There’s nobody in the back seat here.” She greets them each by name, shaking their hands. So does Emilou – a puppet with a life (and a Facebook page!) of her own, beloved by Kareen’s clients.

The group does warmups together, breathing in joy and love, marching their feet and stretching their arms. They sing. They talk about interesting events that happened on that day in history, or people, or silly topics that become the theme for the session. “I’ll say, ‘I want you to pick the dullest topic you can think of,'” Kareen tells me. “And, I promise you I’m going to work this thing and when it’s ready, we’re going to find out how amazing, how much fun we’re going to have with that topic that we would’ve considered otherwise dull.” Paperclips. Concrete. Lint. Fungus. It’s all fair game.

“I don’t come in as an entertainer,” Kareen explains. She doesn’t perform on stage while everyone sits quietly and watches. “I want it to be an experience.”

Not, in other words, the type of thing you’d imagine would easily convert to a virtual world. But with care facilities closed to visitors and entertainment workers, virtual is often the only option for staying connected. And it’s one Kareen has embraced. Earlier this month, we talked about Kareen’s transition to virtual, the challenges she’s encountered, and the opportunities she’s discovered to build relationships and strengthen connections . . . even from miles away.

Those little moments . . . even a little one-minute, two-minute interaction on an iPhone can literally make someone's day.

You’ve done a couple of virtual sessions. How has that gone for you?

I would highly recommend it. I’m lucky enough that the places I work have the big screen televisions. And so what we’ve done is Facebook Messenger. We tried FaceTime and just using an adapter where you can plug someone’s iPhone into FaceTime, and we couldn’t get sound out. So then someone had to hold a microphone up to the iPhone. That was a big hassle.

Facebook Messenger has been excellent because I can see the residents. So I see them, they see me. And I can address them all by name, so it’s been really great. I’ll say, “Hey, I see Evelyn back there, is that you?” And so it’s been fun for them to know that they’re seen.

The kind of fun part—and surprising part—of doing it virtually is that I can now bring them into my world. And so I’ve given them a tour of my home, all the little things that I just wouldn’t want to drag over to their place, or little things that they might have a hard time seeing, and bringing it up close and personal.

I have all this vintage music here—here, let me show you this. Does one of you guys know this song?

My mother had this huge stash of pinup posters of Elizabeth Taylor and all those people back when they were drop-dead gorgeous and in their twenties. And I would bring the iPhone up to those so that they can see them, and I’ll say, “Hey, do you want to see my mom’s stash of this?” Or “I have all this vintage music here—here, let me show you this. Does one of you guys know this song?”

And I’ve taken them outside, so they can see the surroundings of where I live.

And they’re interested in our three-legged dog. Our dog got run over by a car a few months ago, and so he had to have a leg amputated—so they want to see Hank. So it’s been really fun, actually, for them.

I wondered, you know, is this working? And I’ll ask them periodically, “Are you guys hearing me okay? Is everything coming through all right?” Because if something’s not working, then we adapt as we go.

Hank comes by to say hello

I’ve also been able to set up my guitar and what I found—for those who want to do virtual music—the guitar has worked well. And they say that the strumming’s actually preferable than finger-picking because they can hear it better. I was worried that the noisier it was, the more distortion would be, but not so. So I’ve done sing-alongs with them.

Another thing that took me by surprise, but I’ve just had to adjust to it, is I’ll have my guitar and we’ll be singing, “Mairzy doats and dozy doats,” and then I’ll hear them all singing. So it’s working. I’m like, they’re singing with me. This is so great!

But there’s a delay. So they’re a half a second after me. One time, I stopped to catch up with them and then they stopped. That didn’t work. So you have to just tune that out and just be thrilled that they’re singing with you, because that was super exciting. They’re singing with me on the big screen!

I'm not afraid to talk about our mortality.

The other thing I did was, I’d say, “Okay, you guys, today’s April 9th, 2020. I did a little bit of research and I found some really interesting, notable events that happened in history on this day, and some people were born on this day that I think will be of interest to you.” And on that particular day, I spent most of my focus on a man I’d never heard of before, but I knew that probably, it would resonate for them.

His name’s Paul Robeson, and he was born in 1898. He was a singer and an activist and an actor, an African American who recorded well over 200 recordings. And probably because of him, some of those songs are still sung today. Like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He did the song “Goin’ home, goin’ home. I’m agoin’ . . .”

And I’m not afraid to talk about our mortality. And so we’ve talked about the coronavirus and the fact that, you know, at some point we’re all going to go home. We’re going to see our mother, we’re going to see our father.

And so there was all these really beautiful but very melancholy songs, but they were comfortingly melancholy, if that makes sense. Those beautiful songs, those spiritual songs. “Danny Boy,” “Shenandoah” . . . they love those songs.

Washington, D.C. Paul Robeson, baritone. Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection

So I found several of Paul Robeson’s songs. So that was kind of cool to discover him—and to be able to draw together all these really beautiful songs that I knew. And then of course we went on to some of the more lighthearted, like “She’ll Be Coming ’round the Mountain,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

And when I’m thinking we’re done: “Hey, is everybody good?,” then I’ll find they have questions, and so they want to linger. So I thought maybe the virtual big screen thing might just be something that . . . “Ah, we didn’t really like that. That’s not near as good as being in person.” But they like to linger.

So our sessions that normally might go for one hour when we’re face to face have gone as long as an hour and fifteen minutes. Hour and twenty. So that’s pretty nice.

Kareen, would it be possible for you to come here on a day when the weather is good and we can bring the residents outside to the patio and you sit, you know, ten feet away from us and do your concert there?

What would you say to other people in your field who have found themselves suddenly on the outside, unable to actually see the people that they usually work with and love?

I would encourage them to reach out and maybe call the activity director. Give it a shot to see if they’d be willing to set up virtual sessions.

One other thing that I’m actually waiting to hear back on with [a] small memory care home—because I think all of this coronavirus stuff is somewhat confusing to that group of folks. They said, “Kareen, would it be possible for you to come here on a day when the weather is good and we can bring the residents outside to the patio and you sit, you know, ten feet away from us and do your concert there?”

Of course the weather is too cold today to do this, but that’s something I’m looking at.

Emilou, residents, and finger puppets

One of the hit-and-miss things, I must add though: here’s an issue. The assisted living folks that I finally did my first virtual session with—it took us three weeks to get this together, because the manager at the assisted living doesn’t have an iPhone. So finally I’ve had to have one of the other coworkers come and set it up for me.

So there are little things that you have to work with—if somebody doesn’t have an iPhone, doesn’t have the technology, if there’s not an adapter—there’s definitely some things you’re just going to have to make that happen. You know, it takes a little bit of extra effort, but it’s worth it.

Especially—I think it’s one of those things where if you don’t know what you’re doing at first, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’m doing.” But then when we figure it out, there’s this collective sense of, “We did it. We DID that!”

So it’s kind of a stretch, but it’s worth it.

Oh there's all our buddies that we don't get to see anymore because of this coronavirus!

And there’s troubleshooting to be discovered. We have three different neighborhoods, so there was an activity director for each neighborhood. So we all got on Facebook Messenger. And so what the residents saw was a screen that was split into three. They could see the residents of the other two neighborhoods, and then they could see me on the third screen. And for most of them that was kind of fun because they were like, “Oh there’s all our buddies that we don’t get to see anymore because of this coronavirus!”

So they got to say hi to the people, that way. So that was cool.

But on the downside of that was, one of the neighborhoods has a lot more people with dementia. And it was probably more confusing to see the split screens. So what we’re going to do next time is we’re going to have a separate one for them. It makes it a little bit more work for me, but that’s okay. Because I lost most of my work. So my schedule’s pretty wide open. I’ve been keeping very, very busy with a lot of projects, but they’ll go, “Is that going to work for you?” I’m like, “Yes it will. You just let me know, and we’ll work it out.”

Emilou greets a new friend.

Is there anything that I should have asked you that I haven’t, anything that you’d like to share?

I’m very passionate about the things that I’ve already mentioned: about addressing [people] by name, about the physical touch, which I know we don’t have right now. But when I was with the group, just the most recent group, I said, “You guys, I just want you guys to know how great it is to see your faces. I want you to know that I love you guys.”

And I could hear them saying, “We miss you and we love you too.”

My boss has been so great. I said, “Please let anybody who wants to do this, if they have an iPhone and they want my contact information, just let them know. They can call me anytime and FaceTime with me, and I’d be happy to have little one on ones, just say hello, have Emilou say hi into the screen.”

And so the other day my boss called me and he said, “Hey, I’ve got some people, let’s go down the hall. Who else can you think of that might like to see you?” And we heard—several of them said as he left their room, “That made my day.”

And one of them, it was her birthday. And so I sang “Happy Birthday” to her, and I sang my little “Hello Dolly” kind of a parody, and she started to cry—in the screen, I could see her. And so even that—those little moments . . . It is amazing that even a little one-minute, two-minute interaction on an iPhone can literally make someone’s day.

Kareen King
Kareen King

Excerpts from an interview conducted on April 13, 2020. Text has been edited and condensed for concision and readability.

To learn more about Kareen King and The Golden Experience, click here. You can also find her on Facebook and watch her presentation at the 2014 Memory Bridge Retreat to learn about Emilou’s namesake.

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