RALEIGH — What resembled the sound of a Native American tribal ritual Wednesday morning was actually the drum beats of senior living community residents, harmonizing with a drum leader during a music therapy exercise.
Fifteen men and women at Magnolia Glen senior living community, north of the I-440 Beltline, sat in a circle with a bongo drum between their knees, tapping and smiling as they watched or listened to instructions from Rebekah Crisp, of EXPLORE! Rhythm in Durham.
The group also played maracas, sang and experimented with a “boomwhacker,” a nontraditional instrument that resembles a tube used to hold gift-wrapping paper.
Many of the participants in the drum circle either suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or have mobility problems due to Parkinson’s disease.
“It is nothing short of the magic of music that it makes people become much more socially active, more responsive and alert,” said Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.
Having researched Alzheimer’s disease, Doraiswamy said the disease damages many parts of the brain, but “the memories of the music they cherished when they were younger remains.”
Many residents smiled glowingly as they sang “You are my sunshine” and “Let me call you sweetheart.”
The wellness director of the senior center, Meredith Le Vind, said that during the drum circle, she noticed a difference in the behavior of the residents with Parkinson’s disease. They seemed better able to focus and respond.
“There’s no question that music memory is one of the things most maintained by people with dementia,” said Dr. Philip Sloane, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Dr. Daniel Kaufer, a professor of neurology at UNC, said people with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive diseases face challenges when communicating. They have difficulty choosing words and more trouble understanding sentences with multiple parts, such as instructions. Their thoughts are less abstract, and expressing emotion is not always easy.
“Since music plays into human emotions, it’s a way to express many different types of emotions that are hard for people with Alzheimer’s to express otherwise,” said Kaufer. He said that the drum circle, a group activity, can also improve their cognitive ability by allowing them to be a part of something they feel is purposeful.
Resident George Anderson, a former judge, was especially upbeat on his drum.
“It was nice to do this as a group,” he said, “to see how others do, to compete, and to help each other out. That’s what life is all about.”
As well as offering music therapy events, the group EXPLORE! Rhythm teaches drums to children and adults as part of community building activities.
The drum leader Rebekah Crisp said the ability to harmonize with a drum beat is something everybody is born with.
“In the womb we hear the sound of our mother’s heart beating, so the sound of the drum is something we are innately connected with,” she said.
Some of the techniques she taught were designed for specific therapy, such as using beats that require the right and left hand to reach over one another on the drum. This requires both hemispheres of the brain to communicate with each other.
Long-term effects of music therapy have not been studied, but there has been research that shows when people with Alzheimer’s listen or play music, their coordination, mood, appetite and cognitive activity improves.
The effect can last for several hours, Doraiswamy said. “The real question is: Can the effect be sustained?”