Music’s therapeutic power
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Music’s therapeutic power

Jewish Home residents hear music, make music

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From left, Rockleigh residents Charlotte Poole and Zona Fennelly, with Sunni Herman, at the end of the play receiving flowers.

If – as Shakespeare suggested – music is the food of love, it is also an important ingredient in therapy, says Sunni Herman, executive vice president of the Jewish Home.

From piping music into resident dining rooms during meals to offering monthly drumming circles, the staff at the Rockleigh facility have found innovative ways to incorporate music into residents’ lives, praising its “powerful therapeutic effect.”

Indeed, says Marina Umanksy, longtime assistant director of recreation, “Music is one of the most well-known recreational therapeutic tools when working with the elderly.”

Umansky – who holds a master’s degree in music and education, and was assistant dean “of a huge music school in Russia” – said the Jewish Home has long had a music program, including both live music and music appreciation workshops.

“We’ve had volunteers talk about Beethoven, his biography, and his works; we play music on all the floors; and we have Sunday music programs,” she said.

Improved technology has allowed the Jewish Home to personalize its music delivery system, said Herman, noting that the facility has purchased iPods for some of its residents. Each device is filled with music meaningful to a particular individual.

“When we get a new admission, he’s interviewed and we learn about lifetime interests. Some of it is music-related,” said Tracey Couliboly, director of recreation. That information is used to help fill the iPod with appropriate songs – whether Frank Sinatra or show tunes.

“We went out and bought six iPods to start,” said Herman. “We’re also experimenting with different kinds of headsets,” identifying those most comfortable to residents. “We’re putting individual music onto the iPods and using them with one resident at a time to see how we can affect the person.”

For the most part, she said, the iPod music therapy is offered to residents in the Free Spirit Wing, which provides care for those with different levels of dementia.

“One resident was just lying there,” said Umansky. “But the minute the music started to play, he opened his eyes wide and tried to move, to reach. It’s remarkable,” she added. “It gives you goosebumps.”

Couliboly said the Jewish Home’s monthly drumming circle program has also had a beneficial effect.

“One of our board members gave us a challenge, to find a group program they could sponsor,” she said. She came up with the idea of the drumming circle, and approached someone who could help her arrange it.

“I asked him to come and do a presentation. There were maybe 55 residents there – all different kinds of residents and physical abilities. I gave a drum to a woman who is normally passive and said I want you to express freedom without saying words. She did it. When I asked how she felt, she said ‘elegant, like a bird released from a cage.'”

Drumming, said Couliboly, gives residents “an opportunity to express themselves in a social gathering and triggers different memories. A ‘starter’ chooses the beat. It also provides empowerment for that individual.”

“They started acting as one,” said Umansky. “It was amazing to see.”

Myrna Block, president of the Jewish Home’s board of directors, noted that the residents recently put on a “fabulous” musical play. So good, in fact, that they will reprise the production on June 14 for seniors at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades.

“The thought was to try to produce a play and have the residents participate, like a camp production,” she said. “There was a lot of practicing and camaraderie, and a strong sense of accomplishment.”

Working for six months with volunteer Marilyn Bell, a Juilliard graduate who has produced numerous plays for charitable organizations, some 16 residents starred in a musical called “Broadway Melodies: A World Cruise,” including songs, a backdrop, and sound effects. While some residents sang, others performed off-stage jobs, such as constructing the backdrop.

“The outcome was so fabulous, it was unbelievable,” said Block, adding that the production far exceeded her expectations. “Every song was in tune and not one word was missed.”

Charlotte Poole, a blind resident who plays violin by ear, sang two solos. “It was so professional,” said Block.

Staff members agreed that this was “a life-changing moment for residents.”

Said Block, “One lady’s daughter said that when [her mother] was living alone, she stayed in a bathrobe all day. Now she’s 95 and vibrant. She greets everyone and says, ‘Would you believe I’m in a play?’ She’s exuberant.”

Couliboly noted that another woman, “on the quiet side, sang ‘Edelweiss’ and now she’s talking louder.” In addition, said Couliboly, one eight-year resident, a member of the audience, “called the next morning and left a long message about how…this was the highlight of her life.” The resident added that she was hoarse from cheering and her hands were red from clapping.

“I was part of the performance,” said Couliboly. “By the third song, I had to hold back tears because this was an actual show, really our group. It was life-changing for staff and families, as well.”

Herman said the Home recently invited Dr. Concetta M. Tomaino to address the board and the Jewish Home staff about the connection between music therapy and brain function.

Tomaino – executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, as well as senior vice president for music therapy at CenterLight Health System (formerly Beth Abraham Family of Health Services) – is known for her research into the clinical applications of music and neurologic rehabilitation, and has lectured widely on the subject throughout the world.

“She made specific points about the function of music in the brain,” said Herman. “When we listen, it’s processed in many different areas of the brain. Studies have shown that some areas of the brain are relatively unaffected by dementia.”

Music is useful in a variety of ways, Herman continued. For example, playing music in a hospice room “is very soothing to the resident, and his or her family.” In addition, “repetitive words help hold the attention of a resident, so one member of the chorus who doesn’t talk was singing every word to every song” in the residents’ musical production.

“It enhances behavior, it’s empowering, soothing, success-oriented – it brings people alive,” said Block, noting that the Jewish Home has some kind of music program every Sunday.

“We’ve always had both active and passive music programs,” she said. “I watch the residents. Some come in on wheelchairs with their eyes closed. When the music comes on, their hands and feet move and their eyes open. It’s amazing to watch them respond.”

“It helps them keep rhythm, move, and retrieve different words,” added Block. At the performance, “They had to be able to watch the instructor, see cues, and respond. That’s a whole set of skills.”

The Home’s executive vice president said she is hopeful that the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Alan Sweifach and Avinoam Segal-Elad – “amazing musicians” – will visit the facility later in June to perform on the outdoor patio. Last year, the Glen Rock Pops came to play, bringing a 50-piece orchestra.

Herman said she recently met with representatives from BergenPAC to discuss the possibility of residents putting on musicals there and, perhaps, arranging some “coaching…, [learning] how to make it more collaborative.”

“We just had the show and we’re already planning for next year,” said Block. “People are already so excited.”

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