When was the last time you learned something new – just for the fun of it? In our latter years, we sometimes go long stretches without picking up a new hobby, sport or pastime, finding comfort in our day-to-day routine. But there are many health benefits to challenging the body and mind with new skills, and that can be just what we need to get us out of a rut.
So what holds us back from picking up that instrument we’ve always wanted to learn, mastering chess, or trying pickleball? Most often, it’s fear; fear of failure, fear of injury, fear of making a fool of ourselves, or fear of simply taking that first step.
If you put all those apprehensions aside, what is it that you’d like to learn?
If you need a little inspiration, we encourage you to watch “The DUMB Band Strums Again!,” a short film on YouTube about a group of local seniors from the Joslyn Center who picked up the ukulele and changed their lives forever. The story follows the Desert Ukulele Marching Band (DUMB), whose members range from 50 to 94, from their first audition at the McCallum’s Open Call to their award-winning performance two years later. Most had newly learned the instrument, and many overcame significant challenges like losing a spouse or child, battling cancer or managing chronic ailments to achieve their goals. However, the courage, camaraderie and dedication shared by the group enlivened spirits, created a sense of community and took them places they never imagined.
Learning something new enlivens your spirit
“It’s amazing to watch people go from knowing nothing to where we are now – especially people of our age,” says band member Robin Purdie, 64, in the film. “It’s so healthy; it’s socially interactive, it’s testing the brain and growing brain cells. It’s providing joy.”
Joan Stucker, 81, who gave up playing musical instruments due to arthritis, found she could pick up the ukulele. “It has made my senior years a lot more interesting,” she says. “I like my life, in general, a bit more because of it.”
“This group has been through so much adversity and has fought hard to work at getting better,” the film’s producer Webb Weiman tells Desert Health. “Still, with all the adversity, they moved mountains together.”
Weiman is the founder of MY JUMP!, a local non-profit that helps seniors accomplish their bucket list and showcases inspirational stories to embolden others. He was inspired to start JUMP! by his father, who, after his wife’s death, sat in his rocking chair every day expressing his will to die. “I stole my mother’s phone book and got him a date, and that’s what got him out of that chair.” This simple step led to a successful 22-year second marriage and decades of joy with his grandkids.
Learning something new creates community
DUMB’s high aspirations are credited to their champion leader Wendy Alderson who joined the Palm Desert Strummers in 2010 when there were only 12 members. She had never played an instrument and was the youngest at 51. In the second year, she was leading the group, which now has over 140 members and multiple subgroups, including the DUMB Band and top-tiered Rainbow Team.
There are beginners and advanced members and everyone is welcome to give it a try. “Practices are like yoga classes,” she says.
“I show them the basics, and if they want a little challenge, I say try doing this.” Some prefer learning traditional ukulele music, while others, referred to as the “hipsters and oldsters,” prefer tunes from Guns N’ Roses, The Talking Heads, Jimmy Buffet, Simon & Garfunkel, and even modern music like Adele and Bruno Mars.
The Open Call tryouts were Alderson’s idea, but even she was surprised at the deep and meaningful experience they shared along the journey.
“It is astonishing to think that I am doing something I love and, in turn, giving others so much,” she says. “When I started, I was merely leading a group and didn’t know that I was creating an ohana (Hawaiian for family). That wasn’t my goal, but now it is definitely my goal to keep it that way. I am incredibly proud of us all.”
You never know where it will take you
In preparation for their star performance, the DUMB Band practiced with Peter Luongo, a leading ukulele instructor from Canada. In the film, he notes, “The senior groups really appeal to me. The notion that an old dog can’t learn new tricks is actually false. You just have to sell them on the idea that they can do it, and then once they get invested, they are as willing as any learner I have encountered.”
As part of that group himself, he adds, “We want to be challenged; we want to keep our minds active; we want to keep learning.”
“Working with Peter was amazing,” Alderson states in the film. “We all showed up, and even though our brains were hurting from taking in so much, everybody was amazed at how far we have come.”
When COVID hit, she was determined to keep the group going and figured out how to make it work on Zoom. “There was no way I wanted these people to lose touch with each other,” she says. “Zoom actually brought us closer as only one person can speak at a time, so we got to know other members. Conversations were deep; we had losses and spoke through a lot of feelings and emotions.”
She organized happy hours that were actually lessons on how to use the technology, so everyone was comfortable with it. “A lot of our group, especially our older friends, wouldn’t have learned the technology but for the ukulele group, and now they are able to Zoom with their families and grandkids — and still do!”
These new experiences and the camaraderie shared were the most important elements to band members. In the film, Kay Wood, 75, sums it up by saying, “If we were lucky enough to win, it would kind of be the cherry on top, but no matter what we do, we have done it together, and it has been the journey that has counted. We are in it to win it, but if we don’t, it’s ok. It ended up being the most marvelous experience of my life.”
What does it take to take that first step?
“There are many seniors in their 80s and 90s who still think they are in their 60s,” Weiman tells us. “You take Estelle Eisenberg, who lost her husband and at 90 wanted to go skydiving so she could feel closer to him, or Louis Spencer, 92, whose husband drove a big rig for 30 years. She wanted to carry on his legacy by getting behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, or 79-year-old Mariano Altieri, who was legally blind but wanted to learn to drive a car for the first time.”
Weiman’s organization helps seniors take that first step; all they need is the courage to see it through. In the past 10 years, MY JUMP! has blossomed from a small non-profit in La Quinta to a nationally hailed organization, even recognized as a CNN Hero in 2019.
“We want to show seniors that their options to learn or do something new are unlimited,” says Weiman. “Not everything has to be jumping out of a plane. Simple stuff can be that of which dreams are made.” This fall, the organization is taking two ladies to a national quilt show in Philadelphia and then orchestrating a three-generational sky dive in Texas.
Mary Bartley of Tempe, Arizona, grew up in the depression and rode motorcycles when she was younger. She always wanted to ride a purple Harley, so when she was 70, her family started searching. Finally, on her 90th birthday, they found MY JUMP! and within three weeks, Mary was cruising on a three-wheeled purple Harley.
“You really never know where inspiration is going to come from,” states Weiman, “but it is great that people of all ages continue to dream big!”
And that was what inspired Weiman to make the film about the strummers. “My goal was to create something that would make the band proud and that would inspire others to learn or do something new.” The film took two years to produce and was graciously funded by our local Auen Foundation. Desert Health sponsor Isning Gamez also contributed his production and talents to the pro-bono project and now “The DUMB Band Strums Again!” is being submitted to national film festivals.
In the film, Marsha Coolidge, 68, sums it up. “Every day is a gift. In the end, we all want to do the very best that we can. Whatever it is that brings you joy; it is never too late.”