A Santa Monica-based senior service center has been employing a weekly ‘drum circle’ session to engage senior citizens suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s and the results they say, have been extremely encouraging.
Wise & Healthy Aging is a nonprofit social services organization headquartered on Fourth Street that serves more than 20,000 older adults each year from the Los Angeles county area. Music Mends Minds is an organization founded by Irwin and Carol Rosenstein after Irwin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2006, which digressed into dementia.
A few years later, Carol enrolled Irwin in the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patient Care program and he began playing the piano for participating students and adults. Within weeks, it became apparent that playing music empowered Irwin, who became more responsive, confident, energetic and talkative. Carol consulted with a neurologist who explained that “music may help stimulate increases in dopamine secretion from the brain for more sustained levels of energy and happiness.”
Following the transformation in Irwin’s condition and Carol’s subsequent better understanding, Music Mends Minds was born. Irwin passed away in January 2021, but their project has expanded worldwide, enabling others to find the same joy and power in music.
”We’ve been hoping to work with them [Music Mends Minds] for many years because music is a big part of our program,” says Dr. Allamary Moore, Director of Wise & Healthy Aging Adult Day Service Center. “They received a grant to help bring music to seniors that are experiencing memory loss and they approached us and asked if they could use our site and begin a program.”
The drum circles require no musical training or experience. “We provide colorful and accessible percussion instruments such as hand drums, tambourines, shakers and more. Our skilled and experienced facilitators create an environment free from judgment and full of play, curiosity, connection, and music making,” said John Fitzgerald, Drum Circle Facilitator at Music Mends Minds.
“Dancing and singing emerge spontaneously. Rhythm and drumming are musical opportunities for full self-expression regardless of age, background, or any personal challenges. Making music elicits joy and connects us [which are] essential elements for a sense of well-being.”
More or less from the moment human beings evolved, we’ve been drawn to the beat of the drum. As far back in time as it’s possible to look, science has repeatedly found evidence that African tribal music centered around the beat of a drum, or more commonly, lots of drums. And despite scattering ourselves all over this little blue-green planet, it has remained written in our DNA.
“It all comes down to the heartbeat. As a fetus, the very first sound you hear is that beat and for nine months, you are immersed in the non-stop rhythm,” says Heather Kulber, drum circle facilitator for Music Mends Minds. “It’s that primal, when you hear a beat, it takes you back to the very beginning.”
To the uninformed ear, the cacophony of noise made by the group probably sounds like an exhausted parent has let their pre-teen children run amok in the percussion section of a music store, but that’s not the point. The point is that to these folk, the very act of being able to hit a drum and attempt to keep a consistent rhythm, enables the brain to enjoy an experience that is without question encoded into our genetic makeup.
Miriam Caiden, Master Trainer at Music Mends Minds, says there are a number of examples of individuals who have shown significant improvement and growing interest over the four week period that the program has so far been running. “Ina and Nathan particularly spring to mind, she’s been resistant to joining in and now here we are, a few weeks later and she’s getting involved and looking forward to each session each week. And she loves Heather,” Caiden laughs.
“And Nathan, well, he’s game for anything, he’s just loved it from day one. He can’t get enough of it and goes home every day happy and smiling and telling his daughter all about it. We hear feedback from his daughter about how much it’s impacted him at home and that he’s just so much happier since he relocated here from Colorado, and it’s just really made all the difference for him.”