Seniors with dementia express themselves, connect with others in drumming circle

Musicians Alan Yellowitz and Adam Mason run “The Beat Goes On,” a health and wellness program that uses “rhythm enrichment” to brighten the day for seniors suffering from mental illness. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Standing in a room full of lined faces, Alan Yello­witz held up an orange drum shaped like a wineglass. “This one’s called a djembe,” he said. “It’s from Ghana.”

The 30 or so people watching him had, combined, amassed hundreds of years of living, although their recollection of those years was fading. Many stared off blankly, perhaps unable to remember what Ghana is. But one 85-year-old woman started tapping her hand on her thigh.

“Give it a try,” Yellowitz said, quickly placing a three-foot-high drum beside her and handing her a mallet.

Yellowitz and his business partner, Adam Mason, are the guys behind The Beat Goes On, a Fairfax County-based organization that brings drum circles — more commonly associated with college campuses and hippie gatherings — to seniors.

On a recent day, they unpacked about 60 percussion instruments in an activities room at Arden Courts Memory Care Community in Annandale, a residence for people with dementia — including many who have Alzheimer’s disease. The collection featured a “talking drum” from Senegal with strings on the sides that can be used to create a “wah-wah” effect, an “ocean drum” that sounded like crashing waves, and an array of wooden spoons, coconut shells and tambourines.

As they bantered with the residents, Yellowitz and Mason handed out drums and mallets and affixed lightweight drum heads to walkers. “We turn walkers into drum sets all the time,” Mason assured them, and soon everyone had something to beat on.

“Shave and a haircut,” Mason called, tapping out a rhythm. Several people responded: “Two bits!” Right there, a memory had been stirred.

That is one goal of the program: to help people with dementia reconnect with the world, even for just a short time.

“I think everyone down deep has some primal instinct when they see a drum,” Yellowitz said. “You don’t need to be musical to have fun with what we do.”

Yellowitz started his organization in 2009, and in 2010 he was joined by Mason, a friend from North Bethesda Junior High School in the late 1970s (back then, they played Chicago and Aerosmith songs together). Both still play in local bands.

An “IT guy” by profession, Yellowitz had been helping senior citizens with information technology when a friend of a friend suggested that he try drumming with them. He and Mason received training from an organization that teaches people how to lead drumming groups, and now they cart a large, purple container of drums to between 15 and 20 sessions a month with senior communities across the Washington metro area. They also work with corporate groups, cancer patients and people with special needs.

There have been no large studies on the benefits of music to Alzheimer’s patients, said Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a co-author of “The Alzheimer’s Action Plan.” But music has been shown to calm agitation in late-stage Alzheimer’s, although it’s not clear whether it helps with cognition or over the long term, he said.

“It does tend to brighten them up, to make them more alert, more socially active, and I suspect for the duration [of the session] there is a distinct cognitive improvement,” he said. “Music allows them to express joy, it allows them to express sadness. If they have pent-up emotions that they don’t have a release for, playing music might provide them with an avenue to express those emotions.”

Music memory appears to be more resistant to Alzheimer’s than other memories, Doraiswamy said. “I’ve encountered patients who are still able to enjoy music fairly late in the disease when they can’t even remember the names of their grandchildren or friends.”

Playing instruments can also bring back patients who have retreated from social life, said Alicia Clair, professor emeritus of music therapy at the University of Kansas. “They can get people to play together who can’t even talk to one another,” she said. “It allows them to build community — with each other and with family members.”

Rhythm can also facilitate ambulation in stroke victims and those with late-stage dementia, Clair said. “The motor center of the brain is directly affected by rhythmic auditory cues,” she said, which can help sedentary people start walking again.

It is not entirely clear how music and rhythm interact with the brain of a person with dementia, said Shelly Edwards, a programs and services manager at the Alzheimer’s Association. But even to the layman, it is clear that there is an effect, she said. “Everybody reacts to music, whether in a good way or a bad way. We hear rhythm when we’re in the womb; the mother’s heartbeat. Little babies, when you do a particular rhythm on the table, they’ll do it back to you.”

Drumming is particularly effective because it is so elemental, said Al Bumanis, a spokesman for the Silver Spring-based American Music Therapy Association. Citing a law of physics, he said: “If you have two grandfather clocks in a room and they are out of sync, eventually they will synchronize, and it seems that the human body has the same kind of way of doing it. Jazz musicians call it ‘in the groove’ or ‘in the pocket’ when you’re playing together. So Alzheimer’s patients with advanced disease, they start drumming, they start tapping together and it’s very powerful to see that eventually they start playing together. It’s a dramatic thing to see.”

Mason said he was amazed to see how seniors responded when he first began accompanying Yellowitz. “Family members come in and they say, ‘Wow, they didn’t even know our name, and yet they know your name,’ ” Mason said. “They are absolutely amazed that we manage to pull that much out of them.”

Often, he said, their demeanors relax as soon as the drums come out. Part of it is the measure of control that holding a mallet can give to people who no longer have much control over their lives.

“In these centers, they’re told what to do, when to eat and so on,” Mason said. “With this, they can say anything. They can hit loud or soft or sing at any moment. There’s something really free about it.”

At Arden Courts, most of whose 58 residents have Alz­heimer’s, executive director Fannie Halton brought in Mason and Yellowitz after having worked with them at a senior facility she headed in Fairfax County.

“With drumming, they satisfy this inherent need they have to be productive, and that can cut down on some of the anxiety and confusion” associated with dementia, she said. “Ultimately, our goal is to bring about moments of joy for them.”

After leading the residents of Arden Courts in a percussive version of “The Blue Danube,” Yellowitz and Mason lavished them with praise. “We’ve got some buses out there,” Yellowitz said. “We’ll get you all some cool satin jackets, and we’ll take it to some other residences and show ’em how it’s done!”

During the hour-long session, some residents appeared to perk up. When the group sang “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” while beating the drums, a woman who had been slumped in a wheelchair lifted her head and started singing.

A man who had been frowning and beating his drum almost nonstop through the session, apparently oblivious to the songs being sung, turned to a woman seated next to him. He flirtatiously tapped a rhythm on her leg; she giggled, and his face lit up.

Nina Scrivener, 90, a retired secretary for the government, said it was her first experience playing drums.

“It was easy to get with,” she said. “I liked them better than I thought I would.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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