To encourage togetherness during the coronavirus pandemic, one Spectrum Retirement Community had an outdoor music therapy session.
If you happened to drive by The Enclave at Round Rock Senior Living the afternoon of March 25, you might have noticed (or heard) a music concert and sing-along of sorts. But, the staff from North Austin Music Therapy (NAMT) were doing much more than entertaining residents. They were engaged in a large and loud outdoor music therapy session.
As NAMT Founder and Clinical Director, Meredith Hamons, MT-BC, says: “Social distancing should never mean social isolation.” And as senior living communities began to implement “no visitor” policies and closed their doors to protect their residents, Hamons knew it was more important than ever for her and NAMT staff to step up and find ways to do their part to keep seniors engaged.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
In a time of worst-case scenarios, the spirit of hope and community shine strong as amazing people adapt to bring brightness into the lives of those in need. As people began to stay safer at home and group sessions were canceled, Hamons brainstormed ways NAMT could continue to support residents and team members.
Hamons found a solution. “I thought, ‘Wow! We have perfect weather in Texas right now. There’s no reason we can’t be outside — outside of windows, outside on patios — keeping the germs out while letting the music in,’” she says.
Immediately she was on the phone, contacting Molly Davis Nedley, sales director for The Enclave at Round Rock Senior Living. “Molly and I have known each other for years, and I knew she’d be on board,” Hamons says.
When Hamons presented her plan, Davis Nedley immediately said YES! “This was a great opportunity to utilize our outdoor spaces more,” says Davis Nedley who has worked tirelessly to offer elevated engagement experiences for residents. And with that, the first patio music party was set in motion.
Music as Therapy
Hamons, a board-certified music therapist, has extensively studied how a music therapy session benefits seniors. “The reason music is so powerful is because of the way that it’s stored neurologically in the brain,” explains Hamons. She points to the fact that when music is processed, several non-musical brain systems are involved. Music involves structure, encourages repetition, evokes emotion, and requires attention. Individually, each component is essential for stimulating functional skills in the brain. When combined, through music, the brain may be prompted to retrain certain neural and behavioral functions.
Research also reveals that the ability to enjoy music is preserved into the late and severe stages of dementia. Hamons references the large body of evidence which concludes that musical information is retained out of proportion when compared to non-musical memory. Musical memory remains intact much longer, even in instances of severe cognitive decline.
“As you lose memories, you essentially begin to forget who you are. You lose your identity and your sense of self,” says Hamons. Eventually, without the ability to carry on a reality-based conversation, social interactions become limited. “Being incapable of regular social interaction leads to isolation — even when surrounded by a group of people,” she says.
One of the most immediate results as a person engages in a music therapy session is memory recall. We’ve all experienced that. You hear a song on the radio and you’re immediately transported back to a favorite vacation, a wedding day, a first kiss. But, in the case of dementia, recalling that special moment tied to a particular song goes much deeper than simply remembering a good time.
“It’s more than telling a story about their wedding day or the job they were passionate about for 40 years. They are remembering who they are, where they came from, and what their story is,” says Hamons. “It’s incredible to see.”
“You can see it in their faces,” she says. “They know they’re part of a group, they know they’re participating and having fun — maybe they can’t even verbalize it but they’re still able to experience it and connect with others. And music is the bridge to do that.”
No Sound Check Required
The courtyard at Round Rock, enclosed on three sides by apartment patios and second- and third-floor balconies, created an amphitheater where NAMT could take advantage of natural acoustics. Hamons shares this fun fact: The singing voice is much easier to project and carries better than the speaking voice. “Besides, we’re very loud,” she laughs.
Add a backdrop of bluebonnet and wildflower-covered meadows and you have the perfect arena for an outdoor concert.
With the event in full swing, 22 residents danced and sang from their patios and balconies, crooning to familiar folk songs — “This Land is Your Land,” “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Tennessee Waltz’” — twisting to (of course) “The Twist” and boogieing to Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock.” One resident, Bill, brought out his guitar and lap keyboard. Other residents disappeared, returning with pots, pans, spoons, lids, and keyrings, creating improvised percussion instruments.
“At one point,” Davis Nedley says, “Shawn [McNulty], our executive director, ran into the building and gathered support staff from the front desk, housekeeping, and the dining team.” Masks in place, staff created an impromptu (and socially distanced) Conga line, dancing together with residents to La Bamba. “It was a powerful reminder that we’re all in this together,” Davis Nedley says.
After almost two hours, the once bluebird skies now cloaked with gray clouds, it was time for the outdoor music therapy session to come to an end. Together, a single voice, residents, and staff joined the NAMT group in one final song, “You Are My Sunshine.” The sun, as if making a final curtain call, broke through the cloud cover. “Everyone, as if on cue, broke into spontaneous cheering and applause,” says Davis Nedley. It was magical.
Meredith Hamons and the clinical musical therapists at North Austin Music Therapy have been providing music therapies for seniors in independent, assisted living and memory care communities since 2010. To find out more visit www.northaustinmusictherapy.com.