Cable Car Caroling Brings the Holiday Spirit to One and All

Carolers young and old will gather Saturday, December 1st for one of Institute on Aging’s most beloved events, the 34th Annual Cable Car Caroling. This multicultural songfest brings holiday cheer to isolated older adults and adults living with disabilities at assisted living centers, skilled nursing facilities and individual homes across San Francisco.

More than 500 volunteers aboard 15 motorized cable cars will traverse the city, visiting about 60 locations over the course of the day. The holiday season is a joyous time of year but for those who are lonely it can be difficult, and that’s where the carolers come in, bringing smiles and laughter to those who may not have another opportunity.

‘A profound experience’

Few can speak to the impact of Cable Car Caroling better than Ken Donnelly, CEO of the Heritage on the Marina retirement center and a member of the Cable Car Caroling board. Donnelly says Heritage on the Marina has been participating in the event since 2013 and he has no plans to stop.

“It’s a wonderful event, for both carolers and recipients,” he says. “Not only do the carolers feel that they are bringing joy to their older neighbors, but they also see the various environments they live in and the frailties they deal with each day.”

As the CEO of a facility and a caroler himself, Donnelly says it’s a particularly moving day for him, but he says it truly is the older adults who benefit the most.

“They appreciate people from the greater community taking time to come and spread good cheer,” he says. “I think the carolers’ singing oftentimes reminds them of a happy time for them.”

Uplifting holiday atmosphere

“We see more than 1,000 seniors in a day,” says Tamara Cameron, IOA’s Events Manager. “For a lot of them, this is the only holiday celebration they get. It’s really special to do that for someone you know isn’t going to have anything else.”

Cameron says the participants represent every segment of the community.

“We have a ton of families, we have a group of Brownies who come out,” she says. “We have a woman who does this as her holiday celebration every year, then she and her friends meet at her home for dinner afterward. Everybody is represented. Some of our IOA employees come out, too!”

Cameron says the joyous atmosphere on the day of the event is infectious.

“The holiday spirit it creates is my favorite thing about Cable Car Caroling,” she says. “People show up in their holiday clothes, they are so excited to be there – it’s just a very uplifting day.”

The older adults at the facilities are always touched by it, as well.

“It’s a win-win because it is such a gift on both ends,” Cameron says. “It’s a gift for them to have us sing to them and it’s a gift for us to get the opportunity.”

Festive fun for a good cause

Imagine a world where you are alone – isolated and vulnerable; feeling hopeless, invisible, worthless, and unloved. For too many seniors and adults living with disabilities, this is a reality. Isolation and loneliness plague too many and it is extremely detrimental not just to the quality of life but overall health. Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).

Friendship Line provides a literal lifeline to these isolated individuals. Friendship Line, founded in 1973 by Dr. Patrick Arbore, Director of IOA’s Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention, makes and receives almost 150,000 calls per year to reach out to those feeling alone. By providing a warm voice to speak to and a person to connect with, this service provides an ally, a friend, and most importantly a human connection. The calls made at Friendship Line fill these secluded individuals with hope, purpose, and meaning. After the calls, they feel seen and heard – acknowledged in a way they haven’t for a very long time. It restores a light within that had dwindled. At its core, Friendship Line provides the human connections that bind us to life.

Last year, Cable Car Caroling raised more than $100,000 for this vital service.

A family tradition since day one

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of Cable Car Caroling is Zak Arbore, Patrick’s son, who has participated every year since the very beginning. Now in his second year as co-chair of the event alongside his wife, Renee Russo, Arbore says he can still remember the inaugural year.

“I was 4 or 5 years old when it started,” he says. “My early memories are of the smells, sights and sounds of the places we visited. The cable cars were so fun. Some of the cars used to have a bell in the back and I remember ringing them a lot.

As he’s grown older, so has his appreciation for Cable Car Caroling, both the event itself and what it means for the Friendship Line his father started. The sense of community the event creates, he says, is why he keeps coming back.

“When all the carolers come back together and share a meal together, there is an incredible sense of accomplishment,” he says.

To be sure, Arbore says, Cable Car Caroling is a family affair.

“My Dad started the Friendship Line and I have grown up in and around his work,” Arbore says. “My mom has always been a part of it, too; she is usually our song leader on our car. And now my wife and a lot of her family are staunch cable car carolers.”

How to take part

Cameron says the event always sells out, so if you want to carol, you should sign up as soon as possible. Those who can’t or don’t wish to participate can also donate online at give.ioaging.org/ccc. You can also sign up to take the Cable Car Challenge, wherein every $200 you raise earns you a ticket to the event (with a minimum donation of $200).

Anyone on the fence about caroling, Arbore says, should go for it.

“The holiday spirit has never been as tangible as when you are participating in Cable Car Caroling,” he says. “You are riding a motorized cable car through a world class city, you are vising elderly people who do not get many visitors ever and you are the star of the show. You can throw your voice into the group’s song and wait to see those elders’ eyes light up with joy and hope for the future.”

For more information visit www.ioaging.org/ccc.

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