Approximately l0 years ago, I was asked by this music therapist at the Jewish Home For The Aged in NYC to be a part of this music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.
For three hours I was to be part of this group. At that time hospitals, physicians etc. had given up on this segment of the population. What I witnessed was a miracle in this music therapy group for these Alzheimer’s patients. A man bent over in his wheelchair, seemingly lifeless, began humming the tune that the music therapist was playing. He came to life and was totally present for that period of time.
I visited this group because at the time I was a practicing Interfaith Minister at The Tribeca Spiritual Center and the head minister, my dear friend Rev. William Grant, asked me to do services for the group of Alzheimer’s patients on the second floor of the place we were in, which was the Hallmark Residence Center in Battery Park City in downtown NYC. The Hallmark is an upscale assisted living for seniors. We would give services there every two weeks for the residents and for the community.
Not having any experience at all, I said to William, “why don’t I visit them and see what they need.” And so I did! And I realized that they needed to hear and sing and play music and to have visual photos that they could connect to. I had heard about this music therapist at The Jewish Home For The Aged and reached out to her to see if I could be part of her music therapy group, and she welcomed me with open arms and said, “Sherri, you must be part of the group!”
I said, “no problem I would be honored!”
And so I was part of this group and in those three hours I learned to my amazement that Alzheimer’s patients come alive when they hear music or when they are sung too. It was a humbling experience.
I took what I had learned and brought it to the people at The Hallmark. I would go online and xerox songs that they could identify with and would make sure that the lyrics would be in large print.
Some of the songs were: “If I Had A Hammer,” “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” some Frank Sinatra songs, and any other songs they could identify with from their generation. The Tribeca Spiritual Center ave me permission to purchase some simple instruments for them, such as all sorts of bells and whistles, tambourines—anything that would be simple for them to hold.
As a matter of fact, William was so thrilled that I had found out what the residents needed and I was giving it to them.
One day in July I thought it would be fun to bring in some Christmas songs. You know “Christmas in July.” I began singing “Jingle Bells” to them and they became agitated. They knew enough that it was summer and they said “you don’t sing Christmas songs in July!” I stopped and I told them I was sorry and wouldn’t do it again.
Looking back, I think I probably confused them.
Sometimes I would bring in people to come and visit. One of my friends, Christa, was and still is a beautiful singer. She came in one day and sang some beautiful songs to the Alzheimer’s patients, and some sang along with Christa.
Another time a friend was visiting in from Scotland and he brought photos of his native Scotland and showed them to the group. I don’t know if they understood what he was saying because of his Scottish brogue, but I am sure they could feel his big heart sharing with all of them. They had smiles on their faces so that was a positive sign.
Another friend, Amy, came in and also sang with them, and just as the Alzheimer’s patients would come alive with the music, the visitors would be amazed at what they were witnessing. Just to give you an example, I have included this short video of a recreational therapist just recently becoming frustrated with Alzheimer’s patients and finally realized that they would come alive by playing music.
Here’s the video:
This summer there was a documentary that came out about playing and singing music with Alzheimer’s patients. It’s called “Alive Inside.”
I met a friend of the documentary filmmaker at this benefit for Pete Seeger’s passing in Lincoln Center, NYC. This man thought it was something new, and it was for him and his documentary filmmaker friend, but I told him that music therapists had blazed the trail in this area l0 years ago, and that I learned from them to use music while volunteering with Alzheimer’s patients. He was amazed that I was doing this l0 years ago and he was also amazed at the film.
I haven’t seen it but I am so happy that news is spreading and that more and more professionals are using the music in working with Alzheimer’s patients. As a matter of fact the video I shared with you came from the documentary “Alive Inside.”
I told this man that I have always been a trailblazer and was never afraid to try something new if I felt it could be of benefit to myself or others. What I was giving to the group I was working with couldn’t compare to what I was receiving from them. There was so much love in our group. Even though I had never done this type of volunteering work before and I was scared to death, I stayed open and never had an agenda with them. I learned so much from them. Mainly kindness, compassion and patience.
I stopped volunteering with this group after three years. There was no support from the higher-ups and from the rest of the staff on the inroads I was making with their patients. It seemed like they could have cared less, and I began to feel depressed. I could no longer work in an atmosphere where there was no support for this healing activity.
It was a life- changing experience for me and one that I shall never forget. Again, because I stayed open and had no agenda with this segment of the population we learned from one another. I loved them all and I miss them and I am so grateful to them as my teachers. Bless them all!!
Author: Sherri Rosen
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: screenshot from video
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