A new adaptive music therapy activity has been launched at five Fort Smith area elderly residential facilities under the direction of Project Compassion. The program is the first of its kind in the country, and was the brainstorm of Marian Conrad, Project Compassion executive director, in collaboration with Doug Lauts, development agent for Lowrey MIDI Music Center.
Under the program, “Lowrey Music and Wellness,” five local facilities received a Lowrey EZ2 Virtual Organ for three months at no cost. Free training sessions for staff and volunteers were conducted at Project Compassion’s headquarters. Project Compassion is a United Way funded agency and also relies on private donations and volunteers to launch programs such as this one. Project Compassion was formed in 1972 to provide visitation and other services to those in nursing homes.
The goals of the Lowrey Music and Wellness activities are:
• To empower individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the activity of playing music;
• Help participants become more relaxed and less stressed;
• Experience music making in leisure time; and
• Create community partnerships by recruiting volunteers who either can train residents or who can bring their own instruments in to add to the musical experience.
Within minutes of sitting down at the organ, residents can play entire songs, evoking memories, reducing stress and building social and confidence skills.
“We are the only ones doing this in the entire country,” said Conrad.
She noted that there are similar programs used for music therapy in a variety of groups, including veterans and autistic patients, but this particular program was created with the geriatric patient in mind.
“We knew about the musical benefits for the elderly and began to think of ways to incorporate that into local facilities at an affordable cost,” said Conrad.
In February 2015, she presented the idea to Lauts. He contacted Amro Music in Memphis, and was able to get five organs on loan to area facilities. The five initial facilities are Brookfield Assisted Living, Chapel Ridge Health and Rehabilitation, Highlands of Van Buren Health and Rehabilitation, Methodist Village Health and Rehabilitation, and Methodist Nursing Home.
Conrad said facilities were selected on a first-come, first-serve basis after she sent an initial email to activity directors at all 26 homes Project Compassion serves in their six-county region.
Facility activity directors received training at Project Compassion headquarters and will hold classes and activities to train residents to play the organ. When the three month free trial is finished, each facility has the option of purchasing the organ or renting it. Conrad said for each organ purchased or rented by a facility, another would be sent from Amro Music to be used at a different facility.
“We have a long waiting list of facilities wanting to get in on this program,” she said.
At the Brookfield kickoff on Aug. 14, the activity room was packed with residents, many of whom were initially reluctant to attend, but within minutes were smiling, nodding their heads and reminiscing about their pasts. Lauts led several residents in lessons on the organ. Doris Townley, 99, moved slowly toward the organ, but once there, she began belting out a tune within a minute. Guila Turner, 95, said she had always wanted to play an instrument but didn’t think she could. With Lauts' guidance and the encouragement of others, she was playing songs in moments.
The Lowrey EZ2 Virtual Organ allows residents to hold one button based on it’s lighted color and then use the other hand to hit a few keys that are written in large, circled print on the instruction book.
Another feature is what Lauts calls “the can’t sound bad” version. Residents can hold down a background noise button and use their other hand to play any keys they want without reading notes.
Trish Jennings, activity director at Brookfield, said, “I expect this program will help with their spirit, attitude and help create memories and reflections of younger days. In addition, it will help with reducing their stress levels.”
One of the residents at Brookfield referred to the program as “the best exercise in the world” as she jitterbugged to a riveting song on the organ. Another who had been sullen in her room moments before the demonstration could not stop smiling throughout the entire hour-long lesson and performance.
“Music is a lifetime activity,” said Lauts. “We’ve been doing this type of program for several decades, but this is the first time we’ve brought it to nursing homes and assisted living facilities.”
National studies show that music therapy can be crucial for dementia, Alzheimers, depression and loneliness, all things that frequently occur in residential facilities. According to a study by neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory. It brings back the feeling of life when nothing else can.”
Jennings from Brookfield told of residents who are non-verbal, yet music therapy can awaken them and suddenly they’ll be mouthing lyrics or humming along.
“It’s a mood elevator,” she said. “The benefits are not only seen in dementia or Alzheimer’s patients. It can produce amazing results in all of our residents. Music is a very powerful tool.”
Within a year, Project Compassion hopes to have the Lowrey Music and Wellness program in most area residential homes along with another musical therapy program that will be launched soon and will fit residents with less mobility.