87-year-old accordion player sets toes a-tapping at Tri-City senior facilities

By Dori O'Neal, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 16, 2014 

KENNEWICK -- JoAnn Bjerke turned 87 years old Friday, but she doesn't feel much different than she did 50 years ago.

Not much, anyway, she said with smirk.

She credits a passion for music for keeping her young at heart and highly recommends it to anyone who fears old age.

Bjerke walks her talk by packing up her accordion three times a week and playing for the senior citizens who live in various retirement facilities around the Tri-Cities.

"I just love playing for people," she said. "Even when my diabetes acts up and makes my feet swell, I won't miss a performance. I just put my feet up for a few hours before I leave and I'm good."

Bjerke had about a dozen people tapping their toes, clapping their hands and singing along to Take Me Out To The Ballgame during a recent performance at the Chenoweth House retirement home in Kennewick.

One woman felt the music and got up to dance by herself while Bjerke played the Beer Barrel Polka.

Bjerke's friend, Joyce Moore, a retired Kennewick nurse, drives her to most of her gigs.

"The smiles you see on the faces of these people is just heartwarming," Moore said. "JoAnn brings them such joy because she plays the music they remember from their youth and that gets their toes tapping."

Fern Watkins, 84, who also lives at Chenoweth House, sat in a wheelchair with a smile on her face as she swayed to and fro while listening to Bjerke play.

"I love to listen to JoAnn play the old songs. It reminds me of when I was young," Watkins said. "It just makes me feel good again and forget how old I am for a while."

Bjerke was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about 10 years ago, she said, but other than the usual memory struggles that come with old age, she hasn't felt any of the disease's symptoms.

"It's the music, my dear, that keeps you young," Bjerke said. "I play almost every day, either for other people or just myself. It's important that people keep music in their lives because they will not only live longer, they'll be happier and feel better at the same time."

Matt Joice, director of the Chenoweth House, couldn't agree more: "Music is uplifting and brings a reaction that is positive in people's lives, especially the aging."

Music jogs that part of the brain where fond memories are stored and that is especially good for people with dementia, he said.

Rosemary Sharff, activity director at Chenoweth, said Bjerke has played at the retirement home for more than a year.

"She also played at the Parkview senior living community in Kennewick for about four years," Sharff said. "She brings joy to so many people when she plays. I've seen some even shed a few tears at the kinder memories JoAnn's music has made them remember."

Kenneth Allwine, 89, said he feels a little melancholy when he listens to Bjerke play.

"Don't get me wrong, I love the music," he said. "My wife was a violinist and when I hear (Bjerke) play, it's like I'm hearing my wife play again. And that makes me happy and a little sad because my wife's not with me anymore."

Bjerke learned to play piano as a 5-year-old and took lessons for a several years. When she was 13, however, the accordion caught her attention and she taught herself to play.

Bjerke lets her inner showmanship shine when she plays for senior citizens, swaying to the beat while she plays and occasionally belting out a "Yahoo!" depending on the song.

"I play for about an hour and my fingers don't get tired but my shoulders do," she said with a smile. "But it's worth it because I just love making people smile, dance, laugh and sing along with the music I play.

"Just wait until you're old, you'll see what I mean as long as you keep music in your life."

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