'The initial reaction was just joy': window therapy brings light to aged care residents

Jo Walker

Once a week, Benhur Helwend sanitises his ukulele, meticulously washes his hands and slaps on a cheery boater hat to prepare for a new kind of performance. The punters who’ll gather to hear him play are residents at an aged care home on Sydney’s north shore. And depending which way you look at it, either Helwend or his audience members are behind glass. This is window therapy – a way of engaging elderly people with the arts (and a good singalong) while physical distancing restrictions are in place.

  • Musician and actor Benhur Helwend adds colour to the windows

“Usually I start by drawing a big gigantic love heart on the window, and then I write ‘I miss you’,” Helwend says, outlining a new performance kit that includes liquid chalk markers as well as huge amounts of window cleaner. “The residents are in their common room and they are facing the window, and I’m on the other side with a microphone and a little PA. It’s very difficult for me to hear them, so a lot of it is very visual. I’ll draw the songs a bit like Pictionary, and they have to guess the tune we are about to sing.”

Helwend is primarily a musician and actor (you might have seen him in ABC’s Les Norton last year), and laughs while describing his illustration powers as “really bad”. Still, he is slowly developing the ability to write backwards, and has started incorporating what he calls “Mr Squiggle” elements into the shows at Whiddon Hornsby: residents place their hands on the window, then he traces around and creates drawings from their handprints.

But Helwend’s main point of connection is through song, and after three years of closeup visits to this facility – plus more than a decade at other aged care homes – he knows which tunes will get feet tapping, even at a distance. The Whiddon Hornsby crowd are big fans of Doris Day tunes, Helwend says. Alongside What a Wonderful World, You Are My Sunshine, and Aussie standards such as Waltzing Matilda and the Happy Little Vegemites jingle.

The window therapy shows were, Helwend admits, “a bit shaky at first”. Uncertain of even leaving the house at the beginning of lockdown, he was also “terrified of potentially exposing a resident”. Even so, those early performances were “incredibly emotional”, he says. “The initial reaction was just joy. I would sing a song and, despite me not hearing their reactions, I could see them singing along or tapping their feet. They were connecting with the music … even just a finger tap or a toe tap is enough.” 

Staff, too, notice the difference. “Our residents love their creative engagement sessions with Benhur, and are thrilled that these can still take place during visitor restrictions – albeit through the window,” says the facility’s director of care services, Sally Martin. “It’s so important, particularly at this time, to keep their spirits up and keep them engaged through play and fun.”

Now with six weeks of performances under his belt, Helwend says he finds great satisfaction in maintaining connections with his “elders” through a sheet of glass – and he’s not alone. 

  • Benhur Helwend beckons one of the residents to come to the window.

Coronavirus restrictions have prompted the formation of the Outside In Collective (AKA “Boredom Force”), a loose coalition of creatives who work in aged care facilities, engaging residents with the arts. Founder Maurie Voisey-Barlin came up with the idea of window therapy and was quick to spread it around. Together, the collective is providing window therapy at 10 sites across New South Wales. 

For Helwend, the weekly bookings are meaningful work. “I feel like I’m contributing to the happiness of people in the last stage of their lives,” he says. And why is window therapy so important? The best answer is in the lyrics of one of his favourite songs, Hello in There by John Prine, Helwend says. “Old people just grow lonesome,” he sings. “Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello’.”