Graduates of the University’s Therapeutic Recreation program have brought music to a Regina retirement residence. The program has struck a chord with residents who are coming together and discovering the benefits that music brings to their lives.
Dale Hulston cradles an accordion on his lap, running his fingers over the instrument’s buttons and keys. Tentatively at first, then with growing assurance, playing without a songbook, he launches into The Blue Skirt Waltz. “It makes me feel good to play again,” he says, adding a few extra notes for good measure. “I’ve got a lot of practising to do, but I like to practise,” he adds, before following up with a rollicking version of the Beer Barrel Polka, his legs bouncing to the beat.
“I used to play with Walter Ostanek,” Hulston offers, referring to Canada’s Polka King, and one of the best-known accordion players. “Oh, yes, we played all over southern Alberta. He played by ear and so do I.” Hulston is one of about 200 residents of College Park II, a retirement residence in Regina. As a young boy, his parents bought him an accordion to keep him busy. And it did — he played on bandstands and in dance halls across North America throughout his life. He put down the accordion about five years ago when he was diagnosed with dementia, but now he is playing again, with help from two graduates of the Therapeutic Recreation (TR) program at the University of Regina and a volunteer from the community.
Research probing how music affects the brain — including the effects on people with dementia — confirms what caregivers observe in their day-to-day contacts with residents in care homes.
The therapeutic use of music is one of the approaches taught in the TR program with the University of Regina’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies. The program focuses on leisure activities that bring about positive changes in peoples’ well-being and quality of life. Some of the benefits of music include practising fine motor skills, learning a new skill, exercising memory, reducing anxiety and improving social interaction, communication, and self-expression.
Research probing how music affects the brain — including the effects on people with dementia — confirms what caregivers observe in their day-to-day contacts with residents in care homes. Neuroscientists across Canada have focused on music as one of the few characteristics, along with language, that make us unique as human beings.
In his article, “How music affects the brain,” Jacob Berkowitz highlights the important finding that there is no music centre in the brain; that music is about much more than sound, also tapping into areas of the brain that represent movement, emotion, language, and vision. Using a CT scanner, two researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute, in a landmark study published in the journal Science in 2013, reported that when favourite pieces of music were played for participants, their brains released the pleasure-related neurotransmitter dopamine several seconds before the emotional crescendo of the music, establishing clear links among music, emotion, and neurotransmitters.
Much of the current research being conducted by neuroscientists involves using recorded music. Alynn Skalicky BSRS’16 is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at College Park II in Regina. She points out that the seniors residence has an accredited music therapist who works with residents one-on-one, or in small group sessions, using recorded music.
The individualized program that Kim Shalley BSRS’19, a recent graduate in the Therapeutic Recreation program at the U of R, proposed and developed for residents of College Park II was different: a one-on-one music recreation program geared to residents’ specific musical interests, encouraging them to play instruments as partners with volunteers from the community. The idea was a natural outgrowth of the large role music played in Shalley’s own family life. She cherishes her memories of being with her grandparents and watching them dance at weddings and family celebrations. “I think music really does bring people together, and I saw that there were some residents who weren’t involved in many programs,” she explains.
Shalley completed a student placement at College Park II as part of her 560 hours of fieldwork, a requirement of all of the Kinesiology and Health Studies degree programs, including Therapeutic Recreation. Her placement enabled her to apply what she had learned in the classroom about assessing, planning, implementing, and evaluating programs. She played a leading role in developing and implementing a special project; in her case, the community music recreation program.
Putting those classroom skills into practice is one of the objectives of the fieldwork, explains Brandy West-McMaster, an instructor and the experiential learning coordinator in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Health Studies. She helps guide the students through their fieldwork in their third and fourth years. As far as she is aware, the 560-hour requirement is greater than other similar programs in Canada, ensuring that U of R graduates are well prepared to begin their careers. It often also helps them determine what direction they would like to take within their chosen profession.
“It takes time for students to develop relationships where they take their placements and to understand the processes in those places,” adds West-McMaster. “From the feedback we receive from the students and the consenting supervisors where they do their placements, the extra time helps.”
According to West-McMaster, Shalley did a good job of using that extra time to apply what she learned in the TR program. “She embodied that special project and made it her own.”
Skalicky was Shalley’s supervisor during her placement. When she began working at College Park II, she found that some residents were isolating themselves, as Shalley also observed. “Finding some recreation that was meaningful for them meant digging into residents’ histories and needs to find something that would entice them to come out and participate in a program,” Skalicky says. Student placements are a godsend for her and other staff members, she notes, since they often don’t have “the time or the hands” to plan and facilitate all of the programs they might like. She also values them because they help her maintain her own personal and professional connections with the U of R.
"The next step was to connect with community volunteers who would be willing to come in and play their instruments with residents and, as Shalley says, help make those memories again."
After Shalley began her placement, the pair began asking questions. They discovered Dale Hulston’s lifelong connections to music and launched a pilot music recreation program to find a way to incorporate music back into his life. They also found there were other residents who had played instruments in the past, creating possibilities to expand the program. The next step was to connect with community volunteers who would be willing to come in and play their instruments with residents and, as Shalley says, help make those memories again.
Shalley prepared and distributed posters asking for volunteers. A couple of volunteers came to play with Hulston, but could not commit to regular visits. “Dale couldn’t quite remember songs on his own,” Shalley says, “but it was great to see the volunteers play a song, and Dale would join in playing with them.”
Natalia Osypenko saw a post in a musicians’ group on Facebook and signed up right away. She had earned a degree in Music in Ukraine before immigrating to Regina, and like Hulston, she learned to play the accordion when she was young. During their first meeting, she recalls, he played The Blue Skirt Waltz for her. “I went home and found the music and now I play it with him. Playing with Dale reminds me of my grandparents’ love of music; we are having fun, but playing and listening to music also empowers these people.” She and Hulston have since become regular musical partners.
The program began slowly, Shalley says, but gained momentum as more volunteers began to visit residents who wanted to take up their instrument again. It was something of a surprise and a bonus, Skalicky adds, when some residents who had never played an instrument approached her, saying they wanted to learn.
“We set up the pilot project in a public space because we knew that would pique the curiosity of other residents, seeing the volunteers coming and going with their instruments and music, and hearing them working one-on-one with residents,” Skalicky explains. “The program sort of grew through word-of-mouth and from seeing others participating in it.”
While Hulston entertains a circle of listeners in one room, down the hall in another room, Claude Crozon and Mandy Ebel are seated at a piano singing Amazing Grace. Crozon was one of the first residents to join the program. His family grew up “really poor” on a farm near Gravelbourg, where singing was one of their forms of entertainment. He sang in church choirs throughout his life, while teaching in various communities around Saskatchewan. However, a stroke and two mild heart attacks left him without any memory. Now he is working with Ebel on learning, or relearning, several songs.
"I started piano lessons when I was five,” she says, “but singing became my biggest passion. There were a few years where I had to give my voice a rest, but I’m back singing, and Claude is fun to teach."
Ebel is a singer-songwriter, vocal coach, music producer and the lead singer of a band called Opal Stone. She signed on after hearing about the program at the music store where she gives lessons. “I started piano lessons when I was five,” she says, “but singing became my biggest passion. There were a few years where I had to give my voice a rest, but I’m back singing, and Claude is fun to teach.”
Another resident, Winnifred Miller, a retired teacher, had never played an instrument, but wanted to participate in the program as soon as she heard about it. She can use only one hand because of a stroke, so she wondered what instrument she could play. “I thought of the triangle, but when I talked to Kim, she suggested drums,” Miller says. “So, I’ve been working with a young man (Curtis Hinks) who teaches drumming as a profession. He sits on one side of the drum; I on the other.”
In their first lesson, Hinks, who is also a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders Drumline, showed Miller two ways to hold the drumstick and how to make a single drum note. During their four lessons together, they have explored rhythms, sometimes playing to the beat of the music and then leaving out a beat.
“The drum is the timekeeper in the music,” Miller states as a smile lights up her face. “The drum beat is like the bass note on a piano; it just reaches out and grabs me.” She looks forward to her lessons, she adds, describing working with youth in this way as a role reversal from her earlier life as a teacher.
“The even larger effect,” Skalicky says, “is the sense of community that was brought in; having those volunteers coming and going, not only for the residents they were working with, but for the staff and the other residents.”
Shalley and Skalicky observe that the one-on-one sessions have helped the participants with their fine motor skills and their cognitive abilities; they are interacting more with staff members, other residents and the volunteers. Beyond that, they note that the other residents are seeing another side of the participants that they had never seen before, to the benefit of all of the residents.
“The even larger effect,” Skalicky says, “is the sense of community that was brought in; having those volunteers coming and going, not only for the residents they were working with, but for the staff and the other residents. I think that sense of community in Regina is still strong, and the growth of the music recreation program shows that.”
Four volunteers are meeting regularly with their musical partners, with another six coming in on an on— call basis. Six residents are interested in participating, so Skalicky is looking for bagpipers, and banjo and saxophone players to join the program.
Shalley took her National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification exam in November 2019. She is working part-time at the William Booth Special Care Home in Regina and hopes to achieve a full-time position as a recreational therapist at a seniors’ home in another province in 2020. Her work with the music recreation program gave her a greater sense of direction, she says. “I learned that I have strong organizational and planning skills. Those skills, along with my musical background in playing the piano and the clarinet will help me in creating meaningful programs for seniors in particular.”