Drumming Up Wellness! HealthRHYTHMS for Alzheimer's Patients

By: Walker Wright

I have been facilitating the HealthRHYTHMS protocol for more than three years. Through my program, Rejoicing Rhythms, I have had the privilege of working with different populations including children, special needs groups, at risk youth and seniors. Having worked in the Senior Care industry for the last eight years, my initial plan was to start facilitating drum sessions with senior care facilities. Since my HealthRHYTHMS training in 2006, my senior care clients have consisted of assisted livings, independent living centers, memory care units, nursing homes, senior centers and adult day care facilities. Each location has a different feel, but what a joy to work with the senior population!

My first two Rejoicing Rhythms clients in 2006 were adult day care facilities in the Birmingham area and believe it or not, I continue to work with these locations on a monthly basis. Amazing! These locations provide a safe haven primarily for individuals working through Alzheimer's disease. The people at the centers range from mild to severe Alzheimer's. Concerning the latter, some of the drum circle participants cannot verbally communicate. Interestingly enough, they are able to express themselves through the percussion instruments. Sometimes it can be a correlation of two instruments. I have seen Alzheimer's patients utilize a shaker to keep the beat on a frame drum. Wonderful Creativity! All in all, I stand amazed in working with all my friends at these locations.

It has been a wonderful growth process in facilitating the HealthRHYTHMS protocol for Alzheimer's patients. I have learned beautiful lessons and insight over the years by bringing programs to our community. I have realized that the HealthRHYTHMS session truly begins as I get out of my vehicle and load in the drums. At one location, the participants wait patiently, wave excitedly and watch me through the facility windows as I arrive! What an honor and a privilege to be with these folks. The introduction time of our session can be such fun as I always introduce myself and ask light hearted questions like; "what in the world has been going on since I last saw you!?" My goal is to create a safe zone where people realize that NO mistakes can be made. I make every effort to eliminate stress and intimidation from the drum circle setting. Amazing things can happen when people are set free to create and express. I associate soft music with stretching and breathing. I also use "body rhythms" by tapping our feet to the pulse of the music. The good ole' lap slap, snapping of the fingers and clapping to music of the participants' era is terrific. Big Band music and traditional gospel are always hits, as well as rhythm based music, such as Christine Stevens' "Drum! Reviving Rhythms." Intuit your group and have fun with it! I really like utilizing the "shaker share" exercise as an ice breaker to help everybody continue to warm up and feel comfortable creating rhythms with shakers, bells, claves, and other small percussion instruments. It is a great way to help people feel comfortable before incorporating larger drums, such as tubanos, djembes, frame drums, and ashikos. Another wonderful ice breaker for the group can be passing the Ocean Drum around the circle. This instrument is quite profound and produces a great sense of peace and rest within the circle. I also have a fun relaxing time with the ABCs of the drums. I consistently remind them in a light hearted way that you can't make a mistake. Big smiles and being animated as I show the folks how to use a mallet on the drum sets a joyful tone for the group and encourages them to follow suit. I also encourage creativity by playing the side of the drum with a mallet or using the shakers to keep the beat through the session.

Flowing through the program leads us to Rhythmic Naming. For some Alzheimer's patients, they cannot recall their own name and may not be able to speak. I don?t want to set a tone of discouragement, so I have adapted this portion of the protocol. I utilize common names they would recall such as mine "Walker Wright" or "Frank Sinatra". I have even used the facility director's name, a nurse's name or the mail man's name. This adaptation sets a tone of success and empowerment for the group.

Entrainment Building extends nicely as we proceed through the session. I have seen groups create their own "pulse" without me even striking my drum. It is powerful to see how groups can synchronize with a rhythm and keep the groove going. Changing the groove's dynamics has proven to be very positive as we continue through entrainment exercises. I have people volunteer to start the pulse for the group and that is a wonderful thing to behold. With inspirational beats and guided imagery, I keep things very simplified for the group. Often times I ask each group member if they would like to share a "happy" rhythm with the rest of the group. I also like having participants play out positive words such as "sunshine", "joyful" and "blessed." With guided imagery, I communicate a story that the circle can relate to and will conjure up peaceful thoughts. Using the theme of being a train heading down the tracks to the next stop or a warm, pleasant trip through the forest can be a very positive and relaxing time for the group. Soft music, relaxation and celebration are the focus as we naturally progress to the finale, a time to reflect and enjoy our sense of community. I consistently stand amazed as I see the impact that HealthRHYTHMS has for Alzheimer's patients.

Over the last four years of working with Alzheimer's patients, I have taken in many incredible moments. I recently watched a lady in a moment of such happiness reach down and embrace a Bahia Bass Drum. She was smiling ear to ear as tears of joy fell down her cheeks. I have seen Alzheimer's patients dance to the rhythm of the circle, as well as help each other create rhythms on a drum. One memory will always be special to me...The Alzheimer's Center was full of energy and excitement on that morning. The next person to enter the room was a gentleman who was about to participate in his fifth session. He walked with such confidence and dignity. This time it was different, he carried with him an instrument case. The first session he did not participate. The second session he tapped his foot. The third session he took a shaker. The fourth session he took a frame drum and kept the beat. This time he sat down and pulled out a beautiful banjo and proceeded to play a wonderful blue grass tune. The circle accompanied him with shakers and bells. The metaphor of community and acceptance rang true. For me, I just got out of the way and let the group teach me. God has blessed me richly by allowing me to share HealthRHYTHMS with Alzheimer's patients.