Ermione is the lead singer, Timoleon plays guitar and sings backup vocals, Nikos is on percussion and Cristina and Angeliki are the dancers. Together, they fill the Athens Nursing Home with music, song and youthful vitality.
The home’s residents like to clap and sing along, with the sprier among them pairing up for a waltz or two. It is said that music is the best medicine, and observing its effect on the Athens Nursing Home’s denizens, it is poignantly clear that there’s a lot of truth in the old adage.
The five artists belong to the Angels of Joy, a group that has been brightening up the lives of some of the more vulnerable members of Greek society since 2011, performing for children at hospitals and the elderly at nursing homes.
The initiative was started by Angeliki Voulgari and Niki Toumbakari, who were inspired by similar groups abroad. Voulgari had just graduated from the Athens Conservatory’s School of Dramatic Arts and Toumbakari was already working as an actor, writer and screenplay writer.
They soon formed a core of 12 professional artists – actors, musicians, singer, painters and musical therapists – who wanted to help people who are lonely or suffering.
For seven years, the Angels of Joy have been visiting Athens’s three children’s hospitals twice a week, as well as the Elpida Oncological Unit for Children, homes for the elderly, schools and other institutions, singing songs, performing musical theater and holding art events.
“The music and the theater are simply a pretext,” says Voulgari. “It’s not theater the elderly need, it’s a connection and the feeling that someone has taken an interest in them.”
The Angels have seen a lot in those seven years, mainly abandonment. Voulgari cannot forget a woman who she met at the Athens Nursing Home in 2014. “She told me: ‘I just got here yesterday. My son is coming to get me tomorrow.’ She said the same thing the week after, but started crying.
By the third week she was a changed woman; she had no contact with the present. What happens to a person who feels abandoned is truly frightening. They just give up,” she says.
“Many people have dementia and live in their own world. What we try to do is to bring them into the present by maintaining a steady presence,” Voulgari adds, explaining that their programs for nursing homes are usually for three months at a time, but the members of the group make sure to keep visiting.
At the children’s hospitals, the Angels perform plays and organize art programs, but also visit the children who cannot leave their beds in cancer wards for what they call “one-to-one fun,” which includes singing, dancing and improvising with the children and often their parents too.
“We started with children in 2011 and gradually expanded to the elderly. Both groups have similar vulnerabilities and need to feel that someone cares about them so they don’t feel isolated,” she says.
The group has already performed for 6,500 children and 6,400 elderly people since they started the nonprofit initiative that relies solely on donations.