LYNN — Some steadied themselves with walkers as they entered the familiar dining hall. Others were wheeled in by aides. Their eyes, blank or restless, surveyed the colorful array of drums and fruit-shaped sound shakers set up in front of them.
A mesmerizing rhythm enveloped them as they formed a circle around David Currier, a visitor bearing the gift of music for older folks grappling with illness and memory loss. He was beating softly on a Korean hourglass drum hanging from a shoulder strap.
“One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. We’re going to scream, all right?” Currier said, letting out a high-pitched cry that echoed through the hilltop nursing home.
It was a Friday afternoon at the height of the holiday season. And for the next hour, the modest dining room at Life Care Center of the North Shore was transformed into a Christmas-themed “drum circle” for about 20 older residents, many suffering from dementia.
Within minutes, most of the residents were keeping time. They tapped along on paddle drums or shook maracas and tambourines handed out by Currier, a onetime drummer for the rock band Boston, and other facilitators. Some joined in a singalong, remembering lyrics to such long-ago tunes as “Happy Trails,” “Let’s Twist Again,” and “Roll Out the Barrel.”
“I was going to take a nap,” said resident Gloria Donahue. “Now I’m playing the drum. I’m watching his hands so I can drum like he does.”
But, she said, she soon got tired: “My arms are dead.”
“Oh, my,” Currier replied, playfully. “They’re not going to fall off, are they?”
The drum circle is part of a burgeoning music therapy movement that practitioners say reaches people with cognitive impairment who don’t respond to other stimuli.
Currier, 65, who works in dementia education and program development for Life Care Centers of America, a national nursing home chain, has been a music therapy evangelist for more than a decade. Employing techniques he used drumming for his own ailing parents, he leads drum circles at Life Care homes in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Accompanying him at the Lynn concert was a British-born friend, Paul McCartney’s former drummer Dave Mattacks, 71, who sat quietly in a Turkish hat pounding on a portable conga and dramatically striking the edge of his cymbal. And the nursing home’s activities director, Sarah Blacker, 36, a singer and music therapist trained at the Berklee College of Music, paced the room, cheerfully engaging residents with a rainbow-colored African nesting drum.
“The drumming triggers something in you,” said Carla Ciaramella, executive director of Life Care Center of the North Shore. Pointing to a resident who was tapping her stockinged foot while appearing to be dozing in a reclining wheelchair, Ciaramella said, “She hasn’t been out of her room in days. . . . That was one of our big wins today.”
Currier believes there’s a spiritual dimension to drumming, and he views his drum circles as a kind of ministry. A longtime rock ‘n’ roll drummer who wrote musical soundtracks in the 1980s for Hollywood films like “Once Bitten” and “Rad,” he gravitated to helping people with dementia after the 1994 death of his parents, who were the biggest fans of his music.
When they were still in their 50s, his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and his mother with Lewy body dementia. Currier took care of them for five-and-a-half years in the Hopkinton, N.H., house where he’d grown up, until they progressed to the point where, fearing for their safety, he moved them into nursing homes. Watching their decline was wrenching for Currier, but playing music for them helped him remember better days.
Before they died, he recalled, they’d kept time to the rhythm of his drumbeats.
“It’s the one activity where people in different stages of dementia can sit next to people with no dementia, and they all speak the same language,” Currier said. “It’s something that’s ingrained in all of us. The first sound we hear is our mother’s heartbeat.”
Currier now believes drumming can help reduce agitation and depression in people with dementia. Many in his drum circles have experienced atrophy in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a role in learning and memory, but it doesn’t affect the amygdala, the region responsible for emotions such as pleasure, anger, and sadness. So even if they forget about the drum circle minutes after it ends, he said, the positive feeling it evokes can linger.
“Those residents are still there,” he said. “The drum circle brings them back.”
In the Life Care Center dining room in Lynn, where tables were pushed to the side, a Christmas tree provided some holiday cheer for those in the circle. Residents were banging on frame drums, bobbing their heads, and tapping their toes as Currier, wearing a black shirt and tie adorned with bright green and yellow frogs, beat his drum and belted out a playlist of old standards: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” “We Will Rock You,” and “God Bless America.”
“Some of you served in the armed forces,” Currier said, looking at resident Owen Peltier, who sat in a wheelchair wearing a Navy cap. “I’m sending this up to the veterans.”
For many of the numbers, Currier, ever the showman, extended his arms and poked the air with his index fingers as he exhorted his audience. “Pick it up now, faster,” he said.
He led them in a game of howling like dogs, meowing like cats, and bleating like goats, ending with a rousing cheer of “Hip, hip, hooray.” Then he shifted back to a singalong with songs of the season. First came “White Christmas,” followed by “Jingle Bells,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Blacker led the group in a rendition of “Silent Night.”
Soon the concert ended, and residents began returning to their rooms. The drum circle had been an interlude, a break from the daily routine that many would not long remember. But the emotional uplift could help carry them through a December evening.
“Everybody had a good time,” said Donahue, the woman who had complained of tired arms.
“You guys were the stars of the show today,” Currier said. “You’re all hired.”