News / Halifax

Halifax Heroes: Giving the gift of music to our city's seniors

Norm Chouinard has brought music to nursing home residents since 2002, earning him a Governor General's medal.

Norm Chouinard with his harmonica.

Yvette d'Entremont/Metro

Norm Chouinard with his harmonica.

When Norm Chouinard tells the story of an elderly Acadian woman being wheeled into the nursing home room where he was about to deliver musical entertainment, emotion overtakes his face.

“She was almost catatonic. She was in a chair and she wasn’t moving … They told me she was Acadian, and they’d never heard her speak or anything,” he recalled.

The nursing home’s leisure coordinator asked if Chouinard knew any French songs. Of course the Quebec-born, francophone volunteer knew many, and so began to play a few.

“All of a sudden I noticed her hand was just a going with the rhythm of the music and even more than that, she raised her head. Then she looked around, and when I sang ‘C’est pas l’affaire des filles, d’embrasser les garçons,’ she started singing that song,” he recalled.

“They’d never heard her speaking before. Did I have goose bumps? More than that. But I kept on playing and she kept on going. As soon as I finished it seemed the light went out in her eyes. That’s what music can do.”

It’s that passion for music and sharing it with seniors that resulted in Chouinard receiving a Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers last month from Governor General David Johnston at a special ceremony in Moncton.

For the past 15 years, Chouinard has regularly brought the gift of music to seniors at Northwood and occasionally other nursing homes. There were times when he was volunteering four or five times per week. During the summer months his schedule is a bit quieter.

Being bilingual, he is able to donate his time in both official languages.

“Music is a very, very strong way of conveying a message. You play sad music, you put people in a sad mood. You play some energetic music, they feel like dancing and bouncing all over the place,” he explained.

“What you try to do for older people is play some music that they can relate to. That’s the thing. When I play music, I always check to see how the people are reacting to what I’m playing and what I can do is change as I go along.”

The retired seaman is full of stories and loves to laugh. He said that has helped him create meaningful relationships with many seniors over the years.

“Doing this actually you will make a lot of friends because they get to know you. They know you’re very unruly when you show up and I talk about beer and things like that,” he said, laughing.

“I mean, this is a not a church, eh? When it’s a very hot day I’ll say things like ‘A beer would go very well at a time like this,’ and they start laughing because they know where I’m coming from.”

From Irish and Scottish jigs and reels to other “ageless” tunes, Chouinard said he aims to entertain with his harmonica and voice.

“First of all it’s not a job it’s always a pleasure to do it ,“ he said.

“An hour just goes like 10 minutes … Nowadays I slowed down a bit. I mean I’m 70 years old. Most of the people I play for are younger than I am.”

When Chouinard received an email from the Governor General’s office telling him about the volunteer award, he almost deleted it thinking it was spam. He said while he was delighted by the award, his biggest reward is bringing music and smiles to nursing home residents.

“We have elderly people in institutions of all sorts. They’re all alone. They’ve earned a living they did what they could for society and now here they are put in the broom closet more or less. I really felt bad about this,” he said.

“This is really something to be able to do this. You meet people and entertain them. You don’t do it for any other reason.”

Have someone to nominate?

Each week, we will profile an unsung volunteer hero in our community as part of Halifax Heroes.

To nominate someone, email philip.croucher@metronews.ca, Metro Halifax's managing editor, or Tweet @metrohalifax using the hashtag #HalifaxHeroes

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