‘Never Stop Singing, Caroline’

By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Jan 24, 2016
THE moment that Ellen Ellisen waits for every month is finally here: It’s time for karaoke night with Caroline Solonenko, a nurse with the local hospital who dons her singer self to entertain the elderly residents of  Squamish Hilltop House. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” says Ellisen as Solonenko arranges the CDs and the music system for this free monthly show that lasts up to an hour or more. “Her voice is very clear and the songs that she puts on are wonderful. And her singing just puts me in a good mood and I think that is what music should do for you,” Ellisen says.  
Solonenko moved to Squamish in 1990 to work as a nurse, a profession she joined in Ontario for “it’s a job where you can grow and move around, and you work with and a learn a lot about people”.
“You are always working with people and dealing with their families and life situations and it’s one of the more people-oriented jobs you could get into,” she says.
But nursing is not her only love. Solonenko also likes singing even though she didn’t always have the confidence to sing in front of people. She remembers going to the karaoke nights with friends when she was in Edmonton but never mustered the courage to sing along, until she finally took to the mike at a wedding. It was at an after-wedding party that Solonenko went up the stage and sang a few songs, which were liked very much by everyone. She got a karaoke machine gift from her grandmother that year, one that gave her the practice and the confidence to sing along.
But singing for the residents began in 2007, when she was working an evening shift at Hilltop and noticed that one of the more jovial and social seniors resident had missed out on her regular pub night.  
Solonenko asked her if she would come out if she sang to her. The resident said yes and over time, it became a monthly ritual as more and more residents became interested in listening to Solonenko’s songs. She remembers eating her dinner early so she could sing to the residents. But as more residents started to join, the singing was added as a regular monthly activity.
At a singing session, about 20 residents wait as Solonenko plops in the CD and the lyrics from an old Beatles song, When I’m 64, appear on the TV: “When I get older losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a Valentine, Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”
A smile flashes on Anky Lens’s face and she starts to drum her fingers on her knees. Lens, a senior resident, was also a nurse in Denmark and often sang songs for her patients. “Caroline loves to sing, she is good at it and she also likes to tell us about the songs she is singing. I think she is good for the people here,” she says.
Solonenko has seven sets of music CDs, which range from the old classics to Kenny Rogers and right up to the Beatles. She likes to sing songs that are age-old favourites, are well-recognised by seniors but also have some meaning to them. There is a lot of Frank Sinatra, Roger Whittaker, Louie Armstrong and Anne Murray. And then there are the perennial favourites, the standard country songs by Kenny Rogers, Stand by your Man and Tennessee Waltz by Patti Paige, and Don’t it Make your Brown Eyes Blue by Crystal Gale.
“Every song I’m singing is a favourite one for someone. I got a whole bunch I sing I know they will recognise, the ones that will have nice music and nice words and something which they can sing along,” Solonenko says.
Ray Gaumond rarely misses a singing session, and the only reason that pulls him in is Solonenko’s voice and the simple, old-school songs she sings that remind him of a forgotten era. “I never miss any one of her karaoke sessions because she has got a really good voice and she plays old-fashioned music that I really like. I wouldn’t come here if she wasn’t here,” he says.
Once in a while Caroline likes to wear to her singing session a sequinned dress she brought from Campbell River. Singing, she says, is good for the soul.  
“It feels good to be appreciated and a lot of the residents come to me and say they love the music and the songs. There are ones who cry but I think when they are emotional, they are thinking back to when they were married and missing their loved ones,” she says. “Music is an area of people’s memory that lasts the longest and Solonenko cheers them up by playing songs they are quite familiar with,” says Tanis Watson, Hilltop House coordinator. Solonenko, Tanis says, has a loyal following and there are a number of residents who never miss her singing session.
The love that residents give to Solonenko enables her to keep giving back with songs. She recalls many residents, some on the verge of dying, who would call her in their rooms at her night shifts and say to her, “Never stop singing, Caroline.”