The Butterfly and the Alchemist Skip to content

The Butterfly and the Alchemist

Elligleði—meaning ‘old joy’—was formed by teacher and opera singer, Stefán Helgi Stefánsson and retired craft teacher, Sesselja Magnúsdóttir. Together they have brought magical moments to many people in their twilight years and immeasurable joy to their families. Through the power of music and song they’ve provided those with dementia an opportunity to connect and enjoy shared experiences with their loved ones. And it all started with a birthday party…

Sesselja opens her front door to welcome me in. She is dressed in a turquoise sweater, leggings and one of her handcrafted skirts made of multicolored patchwork and satin neckties. Her shoulder-length golden locks are tied back by little butterfly clips in hot pink, canary yellow and jade green and her mischievous eyes are shimmery with iridescent pearl. I’m to learn that she likes butterflies as I discover there are artificial ones that decorate walls and a mirror in her cozy home. Inside sits a relaxed Stefán Helgi. A tenor singer with an opera career that has taken him to Sweden, Italy and Germany, Stefán Helgi now teaches math at the local school whilst continuing to sing in his free time. In jeans and a navy sweater, he has a gentle blue gaze and a calm demeanor that looks like it would be unruffled by presidents or prime ministers. Twice a week he changes into his customary tuxedo to meet with an equally glamorous Sesselja to perform a musical alchemy across the capital area.

Birthday Party

Their story started six years ago as Sesselja’s mother, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, was celebrating her 90th birthday. Sesselja and her family arranged for two performers to come and sing to their mother and her friends at the old people’s home where she lived. The singers were Davíð Ólafsson and Stefán Helgi and they sang a selection of old Icelandic songs.

The effect was astounding.

“It was unbelievable,” says Sesselja. Some of the people at the home were completely passive, sitting staring and even when you spoke to them by name there was no response. However, after two or three songs, they started to look up, to look for where this song came from. Some could only sing along one line at a time but they were with us for these minutes. Those that didn’t sing smiled or just moved to the music. We were shocked. I saw how much respect and love Stefán Helgi showed them and how comfortable he felt being among them and it was obvious he was the right person. So I spoke to Stefán Helgi that we must do something more often.”

Stefán Helgi Stefánsson and Sesselja Magnúsdóttir. The duo Elligleði.Stefán Helgi and Sesselja.

The Brains and the Muscle

An idea was born, and the winning duo ‘Elligleði’ was formed.

“Stefán is the performer,” says Sesselja, “I don’t sing. Stefán’s young daughter once said to me when I was singing her a lullaby ‘it doesn’t really disturb me when you sing but I think it’s better if you don’t,’ so I’m the brains and Stefán is the muscle.” With Sesselja’s drive, self-confessed stubbornness and her dynamic networking skills, the pair now visit 30 old people’s homes every month.

They’re not able to visit all the homes they would like to, so they’ve chosen to visit ‘closed’ old people’s residences, where people are confined to the home because of their health. For 30 minutes each month Sesselja and Stefán bring what doctors have described as musical therapy, where they perform music to connect with people, and create an opportunity for the residents to connect and be present with their family.

Benevolent Voyeurism

“Doctors and staff actually come in on their days off just to see what the fuss is all about, they’re so fascinated to see the effect the music has” says Stefán. “Staff say that our visits brings people together in a group and that’s something that’s quite rare with people with advanced dementia. They are so relaxed during the time when I’m singing and calmer, happier and more settled. This can be for an hour, an afternoon or a day after we’ve visited.”

The musical performance allows people to collectively share in a unique way. Stefán engages with the residents making eye contact with them as he sings and the residents connect with Stefán and his singing. Meanwhile, the staff and the families of the residents look on and witness the transformative effect the music brings their loved ones and how it brings them into the present time.

Magical Moments

Their musical visits have created many touching experiences. One relative poignantly described how the visits create an experience that lifted her father into the moment, where they could both experience something rare and share the same moment, at the same time in the same place.

Another family noted the blossoming of their normally withdrawn mother when Stefán sang a certain song. A few days later Stefán received a request form them. The next time he visited the home a number of the woman’s loved ones were gathered around her chair. Stefán again sang the same song and once again the woman smiled, as did her loved ones, and a photograph was taken capturing the moment for them all.

The photo opps don’t stop there. Stefán has become a bit of a poster boy. “Many of the residents want photographs with him and they have his photograph in a frame beside their bedside,” Sesselja laughs.

Heartfelt Scrapbook

To commemorate their 5th anniversary of Elligleði, Sesselja made Stefán a scrapbook cataloguing their adventures together. It contains press cuttings, pictures where they’ve won awards for services to the community and photos of an enraptured singing Stefán surrounded by captive audiences. Sesselja points to one photograph and giggles “I just had to put this photograph in. Stefán had to get changed in a hurry and look, he’s wearing one black shoe and one brown shoe.” Sesselja shows me a page listing donations made by individuals. “This lady here, her husband was in a home. She asked us how much it cost for each of our 30 minute sessions and she then donated that money every month to us to pay for the session her husband attended. Even though her husband has now passed away she continues to donate some money to us.”

The Woman Who Broke Facebook

Such is their enthusiasm and commitment, the couple are squeezing four weeks’ musical visits into three weeks in order to fit around Christmas and ensure that each of the homes receives their regular musical treat. It’s often a big event when they visit with their audience getting dressed up, having their hair done and adding a bit of sparkle with jewelry.

To spread their work, Sesselja has set up a Facebook page and she eagerly invites me to like it. “You need to like the page because I can’t send you an invitation. I sent out so many invitations asking people to like the page that Facebook actually banned me from doing this.“

Sesselja’s enthusiasm to reach as many elderly people as she can doesn’t stop at organizing the musical visits. She shows me a bright patchwork square of many colors, patterns and textures, complete with zips and buttons. These are what she makes to give to the residents. “Sesselja is great at textiles, craft and jewelry. She was a craft teacher,” says Stefán. Without missing a beat Sesselja replies, “It’s been centuries since the dinosaurs lived and since I last taught.”

Spreading Joy

“Our aim is to continue at this pace for some years to come and we’d love to influence other musicians to do similar things,” shares Stefán. “In many of these places we visit, we’re the only entertainment they have.”

It’s clear the duo get as much pleasure as they give to others during their visits. Their talent and devotion is matched by their optimism in finding ways to ensure Elligleði continues to reach those who through illness become increasingly difficult to reach.

We should all be so lucky to be able to bring the same kind of joy and care to our loved ones at Christmas as Elligleði bring to other people’s loved ones the rest of year.

Information on Elligleði can be found on elligledi.123.is and Facebook.

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