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Music therapy transforms an evening at a group home

June 29, 2012 6 comments

On a warm Wednesday evening this week, Kathleen Downey handed a maraca to each of two men who were seated in chairs in a sunny lounge in a group home operated by the Department of Developmental Services in Clinton. 

Downey next handed a set of small bells to an elderly woman seated nearby and then took a ukulele out of its case.  She tuned it, and with a big smile on her face launched into “You Are My Sunshine.”  

Melody and rhythm immediately worked a change on the room.  Where there had been silence and stillness, everything now seemed to pulse with movement and sound.  A little ukulele can have big effect on a small room. 

For the past 15 years, Downey, a music educator and therapist, has been playing and singing to residents of the Templeton Developmental Center in Baldwinville and in both state and privately operated group homes for the intellectually disabled, including the Clinton facility. 

Paul Frain (center), a resident of a DDS group home in Clinton, helps out with the rhythm as music therapist Kathleen Downey (left) sings “Sugar in the Morning” Wednesday. At right is Paul’s mother, Maryalice Frain.

From Downey’s first song onward on Wednesday, one of the men with the maracas shook it and smiled.  Maryalice Frain, the mother of Paul Frain, a resident who had not yet arrived from his bedroom, tapped a set of spoons.  Another resident waved his arms to the beat.  A member of the group home staff danced in the middle of the seated circle of residents and engaged them one by one. 

For Downey, the tapping, singing, and waving was a sign that her music was having its intended effect. 

A man named Walter didn’t want to participate in the music session at first.  “I want to go to bed,” he said.  Downey, walked up to him while strumming the ukulele and gave him a big smile.  “Welcome, Walter,” she said.  Immediately, his frown softened and he started waving his arms in time.  “I do it with compassion,” Downey says of her work.  

Trained in music education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Downey also works with Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes.  She is about to launch a program, called AlzAlive, that uses music, movement and touch to improve the lives of people battling that disease.   No matter the setting, she says, the music has a similar effect. 

“People become more communicative, more relaxed, more self confident,” Downey says.  “Their stress level goes down.”  The change is noticeable over the course of the hour, but it is also noticeable over a longer period of months and years.  Paul Frain, who arrived in a wheelchair pushed by an attendant about five minutes into the session in Clinton, is a case in point. 

“Initially, Paul was not interested in coming” to the twice-a-month sessions that she holds at the group home, Downey says.  “Now, he’s the most active participant.  And he’s really improved his drumming and listening skills.” 

Paul Frain, who is the brother of  Tom Frain, the president of COFAR, was seated next to his mother, Maryalice.  Downey handed him a tambourine and a stick to beat it with.  She began a folk song called “Sugar in the Morning,” and Paul sang along, beating the tambourine.  Then she did the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.”

“It’s Lenny’s turn to sing,” Downey said next, turning toward one of the men to whom she had handed a maraca, but who had at first shown no reaction to it.  “Do you want to do ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,’ or ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game?’”  she asked him. 

“Ball game,” Lenny answered.  And the song began. 

Downey next reached for a guitar and started singing “If I Had a Hammer” and then “Working on the Railroad,” and it was as if a loud party had been going on in the small room.  She strolled across the middle of the circle as she sang.  “Someone’s in the kitchen with Walter,” she sang to him.  Walter started clapping in time. 

One of the staff members then proclaimed that it was Downey’s birthday.  That launched a quick round of “Happy Birthday to Me.”  “How old are you now?” another staff member ribbed her.  “I’m 39 and holding,” she retorted.  “You don’t look it,” Paul Frain said. “You look younger.” 

Guitar still in hand, Downey next sang  “This Land is Your Land,” then “Jambalaya,” and then a soulful rendition of “Good Evening Blues,” which Paul helped bring to an end with some strong drumming on the tambourine.  “We should take this on the road,” Downey said to him. 

As the hour wound, down, Downey switched to a silver alto flute and quieted things down with solo versions of “Love Me Tender” and “Over the Rainbow.” 

Afterwards, Paul pronounced it to have been a good session.  What was his favorite tune?  “This Land is Your Land,” he said. 

More information about Downey’s music therapy for the intellectually disabled and people with Alzheimer’s can be found on her website at www.miracle-moments.com.  Her email contact is justgrand@msn.com.

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