Two bins. One blue and one red are wheeled into the dining room from a side hallway at Fox Point Manor in McHenry.
Eighteen chairs are placed in a semicircle around the bins, and the residents, sauntering over from the living room, slowly pick a seat. Some fuss, some quietly shuffle, and others are excited to leave their wheelchair for another seat.
When the residents see the contents of the bins, their faces light up. Passive glances quickly turn into smiles and excitement about what’s to come.
Inside the bins are percussion instruments.
Drums, maracas, hand bells and mallets soon are in the residents’ eager hands, and as soon as the blue instruments are placed between their knees, noise erupts throughout the large room.
Fox Point Manor, an assisted-living facility in McHenry, specializes in caring for residents who suffer from any form of dementia, but primarily Alzheimer’s disease.
The severity of cases ranges from patients in the early stages of the disease to lower-functioning and severely affected patients. Staff plans a full schedule of activities each day to keep residents sharp and active.
Five months ago, life enrichment coordinator Donna Rasmussen brought in the Rev. Phyllis Mueller, who recently left her church to devote full time to leading therapeutic drumming sessions for people. Rasmussen had heard good things about music therapy and thought it was time it was added to the list of activities.
The monthly session quickly has become one of the more popular and successful activities.
The idea of music therapy has been around for more than 200 years. Its benefits were noticed early on, but didn’t gain much traction until after World War II. The first accredited academic program emerged in 1944, when Michigan State University established a program.
“The special thing about music is that it has the ability to bring back memories for all people,” said Melanie Chavin, vice president of program services for the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s just something we do; when we hear a song from high school, we find ourselves remembering who our friends were and what we were doing.”
Chavin has had a long career working with and caring for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and taught the positive effects of music therapy. Chavin has written a book on the subject, “The Lost Chord,” and has co-written many articles, as well.
“Music also has this effect on people with Alzheimer’s and dementia because hearing music doesn’t rely on thinking too hard,” Chavin said. “It’s something they can do, too.”
Mueller stood in the middle of the semicircle with a multicolored drum slung over her right shoulder, steadily beating her drum – something she asked the residents to do, as well. Once a beat was established, Mueller started to sing songs such as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “Old McDonald,” “B-i-n-g-o” and others.
The emphasis was on a steady and recognizable beat, something all of the residents caught onto quickly. When a song was finished, some would turn to their neighbor and make a comment about the song. Some even yelled out that they remember a song as it started. It is during this time one could see the strong effects of the drumming unfold.
“Some of them are really quiet and don’t speak a lot,” Rasmussen said. “But after drumming, you can tell that they are alert and they will even chat up a storm.”
Director Jerri Beers spoke highly of the monthly session and is excited that Fox Point Manor has the means to hold the sessions regularly.
“The drumming is very important to them,” Beers said of the residents. “A lot of them have trouble doing simple exercises and movements, but with drumming, they can all participate. A lot of improvement that we see is based on success. When a resident feels a part of something and can successfully beat a drum, that’s really important.”
Chavin, who has been a part of many drum sessions during her time working in residential and community-based settings, agreed, saying percussion is beneficial because it is simple. The patients become familiar with the steady beats, and they can recognize it and play on their own.
When the drums went back into the bins, most of the residents were smiling and even talking about their favorite song. The one hour of drumming created an upbeat atmosphere for everyone.
“Believe it or not, these are the people I love working with best because percussion largely affects lower-functioning people in a positive way,” Mueller said. “I once had a lady who hadn’t spoken in two years actually speak after one of my sessions. One of the caregivers started to cry and they thanked me. That is why I do this.”