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Group Drumming Disregards Dementia

Every month, Donna brought her husband to the senior’s centre for a “drum circle,” a music therapy program designed specifically for individuals with dementia, their loved ones and caregivers.

Music Therapists, since the beginning of the music therapy profession,  facilitate circle drumming and instrument exploration as one of the core techniques within their group session designs.

At the seniors centre, drums and percussion instruments are placed in the middle of the circle of chairs. By 10:00 a.m., ten couples enter and sit next to each other.

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A few minutes before the group was about to start, Donna entered the room with her husband David…..

Donna and David were the youngest members in the group (52 and 58 respectively). Donna always seemed vibrant while mingling around the room, making others laugh while often helping out some of the older adults. One day, after I had known Donna and David for almost two years, Donna arrived looking exceptionally, and unusually, tired. After she found two chairs side-by-side, I walked over to her and while pointing suggested, “Donna, that chair over there is available. I put a large drum in front of it for you to play. I will sit next to David today.”

Story Continues Below…

Music Therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease

  • Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory-thinking skills and eventually limits even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age sixty. Estimates vary but experts suggest that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease.

  • A person’s ability to engage in music, such as drumming and singing, remains intact late into the disease process because these activities do not require cognitive functioning for feelings of achievement. “Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.” Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. Accessed March 31, 2015.

  • With dementia, repetition is even more important if Heath hopes to feel connected with Sarah and celebrate what they have had.  Hellen C., Padilla R. “Working with Elders Who Have Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.” New York : Psychology Press. 2011.


  • In the words of Arthur Hull: “The Community Drum Circle is a fun entry-level learning experience that is accessible to anyone who wants to participate. Drum Circle participants express themselves collectively by using a chorus of tuned drums, percussion, and vocals to create a song together while having a great time.

  • Group drumming alters neuroendocrine and immunologic measurements in the participants – this means a boost to your immune system. “Beating Stress — on the Drums.” WebMD. Accessed March 31, 2015.

  • Group drumming boosts cancer-killer cells in study. A study led by Barry Bittman found that one group drumming method increased Lymphokine-Activated Killer (LAK) which signaled a strengthening of the body’s immune system.  The advantage of drumming is that it’s inexpensive, portable and not time consuming.  It also enriches in other areas such as sociability, learning and mood improvement.

As the session continued, Donna, went through a transformation. First, Donna closed her eyes and within a few minutes, you could hear her drum above all others. After an hour, the drumming came to a stop. She leaned back in her chair but kept her eyes closed.

After a brief silence I strummed a few chords on my guitar leading into a song I knew Donna and David both new well, and loved. David sang every word, often looking me in the eyes with a warm smile of recognition. When the song ended, I turned to David and asked, “How did the music make you feel today?” Without looking at me, his lips opened and closed several times as if trying to remember what to say. I looked across the circle at Donna who was about to speak for her husband. I put up a gentle hand signifying that it was okay and that she didn’t have to answer for him. I repeated the question. “How did the music make you feel today David?”

David looked at me, smiled, and said, “Music makes me happy.”

You could hear an audible exhale from those in the room who had been anticipating, and waiting patiently for his answer. Donna, visibly relieved, leaned back in her chair and rubbed her hands after the intense drumming.  She nodded at me and gave a small smile.

Although music cannot fix David’s dementia, it did provide a moment of clarity, autonomy and relief for both David and Donna. Donna was able to express intense frustration, regret, and loss through the drum. While the drumming filled David with a sense of purpose, and present understanding.  Music gave both Donna and David a meaningful 90 – minutes together.