Residents of “The Bellingham at Orchard” Create Musical Group to Harness the Healing Power of Music

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The Bellingham in Orchard supports people living with memory loss. Most of the time, when a person has dementia, their short-term memory is affected, but they retain memories of early life. As staff get to know the residents, they look for clues about their backgrounds, so they can interact with them in a meaningful way. One of the most powerful tools they have to make a connection? Music.

In her piano position, resident Betty Jean is responsible for reading the music and leading the other players to song. Photo courtesy of The Bellingham at Orchard

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought social distancing into our lives, it meant that friends, relatives and other guests could no longer come and visit us, so The Bellingham at Orchard had to reinvent ways of bringing the healing powers of music to their building.

“Before the coronavirus came into effect, artists would come into the building to play music and residents would sing along with them,” explains activities director Charles Harriman. “We would have all the residents crammed into the room singing, and it was a great moment. “

Marketing director Jan Higman remembers adjusting to the new reality. “We tried to isolate the residents in their rooms, as a lot of assisted living facilities do, but it’s really difficult in terms of memory care. You could literally spend the whole day getting people back to their rooms because they can’t remember why they’re supposed to stay there. In addition, many people with dementia have a need to wander and wander. It is an unfortunate side effect of this disease.

Orchard Marketing Director Salish Band and Bellingham singer Jan Higman proves that a mask can’t hold back music. Photo courtesy of The Bellingham at Orchard

They decided to get creative. They could no longer bring groups of people together for activities, so Harriman and Higman took over as performers. “Charles and I would pick a different song each day and walk through the halls singing for all the residents, trying to find creative ways to keep the residents engaged,” says Higman.

Socialization is extremely important for people with dementia; that social interaction can prevent depression, which could exacerbate all symptoms of dementia.

“After a while, we decided to sing in the activity room and have a few residents with us,” says Higman. “Maybe we would have them play the tambourine, to have them included. Then everyone in the general area could hear what was going on and feel a part of it as well. “

Taffy’s brings her xylophone skills to help make music, and provides a vital link between the staff and the residents they work with. Photo courtesy of The Bellingham at Orchard

From their humble beginnings as a pair of troubadours roaming the halls, the musical group, nicknamed the Salish Band, has grown into a formidable formation comprising an impressive array of instruments. “Our main musician is Betty Jean, who plays the piano. She used to give piano lessons, so she is able to read music and learn new songs that the residents know and can sing, ”says Harriman. “And I will distribute rhythm instruments to the other residents – hand drums, bells, tambourines, chimes, shakers… we have rhythm instruments galore. Sometimes you find out that they can play a musical instrument. Maybe they were playing the accordion, so I’ll take a little accordion just for fun, and they can join us.

And it’s not just the residents having fun, the employees too. “For example, Taffy plays the trumpet and the xylophone, Ronnie plays the bongos and the flute, and Jordan plays the violin,” says Harriman. “Some of them may not have played since high school, so they are relearning at the same time as the residents.

Life Enrichment coordinator Charles Harriman and his harp playing blur the line between work and play, when it comes to making music with residents. Photo courtesy of The Bellingham at Orchard

Because they still have to make sure to maintain a good distance between all the players, they benefit from the size of their building.

“There’s a piano in the activity room, so we’ll have a small group of staff and residents spread around the room,” says Harriman. “Outside the activity room is the dining room and there are residents’ rooms nearby. They can hear going up and down the halls, and some of them will stand at the door and sing along with us.

Although music has always been a part of life at Bellingham at Orchard, this new way of meeting has proven to be effective for the well-being of residents and very popular as well. There are already plans to expand the program in the future.

“Before the lockdown, we would take our instruments and singers to other facilities and share music with them. And we hope we can do it again in the future, ”said Harriman. “Everyone has fun singing and playing music together. “

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