Think of a time you heard a classic song come on the radio, an old favorite from years ago. You’re driving along, perhaps, or doing the dishes when those first notes come through the stereo, and suddenly you’re back in time, highway driving in your first car or dancing the night away at prom. You can hardly remember what you ate for breakfast that morning, but somehow you can remember every word to that 80’s cult classic and the names of everyone in the band. That’s the uncanny power of music—nothing transports us so quickly to other times and places, and nothing quite so easily primes the feelings and emotions that are deeply connected with past experiences.
But that’s not its only power, not for Lindsey Perrault and the residents at the Woods at MapleCreek. On a given Saturday morning, the Woods’ dining room is transformed into a veritable concert hall, complete with guitars, tone chimes, and most importantly, a chorus of voices. While caregivers and nurses move about their daily tasks, the echo of vintage tunes reverberates through the halls and offices, from “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” to “Wild Irish Rose” to “Auld Lang Syne,” sung by the residents themselves and led by Perrault, one of the Woods’ Activity Coordinators, a Board Certified Music Therapist (MT-BC), and a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony Choir.
“Music can also be used as a tool,” Perrault informs me after a morning of singing with the residents, “it can be used to reach functional goals.” Such goals include increasing social skills, improving memory and mood, decreasing physical pain, and motivating activity. Certainly there are other activities meant to do as much, but none so aesthetically pleasing, and none that share another of music’s peculiar advantages: because music is stored in and uses many different areas of the brain, damage or deterioration to one area does not prevent a person from participating. For residents of the Woods, the majority of who carry cognitive deficits to a certain extent, music thus becomes a particular blessing, a means of reaching across the divide, of communicating and expressing themselves both personally and to one another.
Perrault is very intentional in the songs she chooses (songs from a person’s twenties, apparently, are best for long term memory), and she is more than happy to share the rationale behind each specifically; songs like “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” for example, provide visual cues for clapping and other upper extremity exercises, while others such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” prompt emotional mirroring and feeling response. Residents are even able to participate directly in the music-making, casting tone chimes to “Auld Lang Syne” as a group.
Of course, the music is not meant to be wholly practical. The other dimension of music therapy is the one to which we can all relate, that aspect of song which feeds our inner lives, strongly manifested in the hymn-singing that takes place on Sunday afternoons. Again with Perrault’s lead, the residents sing many of the church favorites—“Amazing Grace,” etc.—and the effect is certainly moving. For many of the Woods’ residents, access to the inner self is increasingly clouded, at times impossible. And yet, it seems, with every resident joining together in chorus, the human side is being reached. The dam bursts, memories flood, and as Perrault puts it, “the spirit revives. It’s special—it really brings out so much life.” Witness the lively, boisterous scene on Saturday mornings or the peaceful, meditative sobriety of hymn-singing on Sundays afternoons, and you’ll know what she’s talking about.