WATERBURY, Conn. — Josephine Mastroianni has played piano by ear since she was 7 but never had formal training until a charitable group learned of her wish and made it happen.
Now 86 and taking weekly piano lessons, the Waterbury woman is among a growing number of senior citizens nationwide getting their wishes granted by grass-roots groups inspired by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for sick children.
While the organizers are careful not to call them "last" wishes, they’re often the kind of activities the seniors can’t arrange themselves or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, like meeting a favorite celebrity or touring their childhood home.
Mastroianni says she never would have thought to take piano lessons at her Waterbury nursing home and was shocked when Seniors Have Dreams Too, a nonprofit based in Wallingford, set up the free weekly sessions.
Mastroianni’s goal is to play "I Did It My Way" for her fellow residents, many of whom gather in their wheelchairs to watch her lessons.
A number of the wish-granting groups, including Seniors Have Dreams Too, are run by volunteers who pay for the expenses with donations and focus mainly on nursing home residents or homebound seniors.
"People need something to look forward to, especially at an older age," said Sally Smith, who founded Seniors Have Dreams Too in 2007 and is a recreation director at Cheshire House, Mastroianni’s nursing home.
"I can’t imagine being older, being alert and oriented, and yet feeling that there’s something I wanted to do and couldn’t or that there’s nothing to look forward to," Smith said. "That would be just heartbreaking."
The Seniors Have Dreams Too group has counterparts in several other states. They include the Indianapolis-based Never Too Late group, the Forever Young Senior Wish Organization of Collierville, Tenn., and Second Wind Dreams of Marietta, Ga.
One of the largest such groups, the Twilight Wish Foundation, has granted about 1,300 wishes in 35 states since it was founded in 2003. It has chapters in Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia, Washington and Idaho.
"There have been some very poignant wishes, such as people who want to go to family reunions or see a family member one more time," said Cassy Forkin, the group’s founder and executive director.
Its wish recipients must be at least 68 and unable to make the wish come true for themselves because of their low incomes or the complexity of the wish.
"People sometimes ask me, `Does the person have to be terminally ill to get a wish?’ and I say no because we’re all going to die someday," she said.
Twilight Wish divides the dreams into two categories: simple needs such as replacing a broken appliance or getting new dentures, and "living life to the fullest" wishes, which have included riding in a fighter plane and meeting a favorite baseball player.
Seniors Have Dreams Too has limited its criteria a bit more for cost and safety reasons, focusing on quality-of-life wishes.
They’ve included a surprise tuneup for a blind man’s guitar, a champagne reception and art show for a woman who wanted to display her paintings and a special delivery of New York Yankees gear for a dying fan whose husband’s biggest wish was to see her smile again.
"They really don’t ask specifically for their own wish," Smith said. "We usually learn what it is by listening to them mention something or say, `I always wished that …’ or hearing from someone else about what they’d really like."
For Mastroianni, piano lessons were out of the question when she was a child with seven siblings, and the obligations of family and working life pushed the dream to the back burner in later years.
She learned to plink-plunk her way through her father’s favorite Italian songs when she was young, then developed a right-hand-only style that sufficed for decades on the Casio keyboard her husband gave her as a gift.
"I thought about lessons all of my life, but you know, it just never came about," she said on a recent morning as she practiced on the nursing home’s baby grand with teacher Jack Tyrrell, who volunteered his time for the Seniors Have Dreams Too group’s request.
"I wasn’t sure if I was going to be too old to learn, but I think I’m doing OK," she said. "I’m really getting it."
Written by Stephanie Reitz (AP) – May 31, 2010