the wellness academy: the initial experience

yesterday i had the utmost pleasure to spend my afternoon at a local wellness academy for people with dementia. as an aspiring music therapist, this was of course such a great opportunity to get a sense of the atmosphere and the people that i could potentially be working with. i went in expecting a job interview (for a summer position), but instead found myself welcomed to join in for the rest of the afternoon. this will be a (hopefully not too lengthy) summary of my experience there.

something unique about this academy is that rather than for more medicinal purposes with a heavy focus on treatment, they think of themselves as a place for enrichment, socialization, and self-expression. the participants themselves (not called patients, or clients, or any names of the sort – everybody is equal) call it their “school” as well, and they are right to do so. the programs include, but are not limited to:

  • music
  • dance and fitness
  • collaborative art programs
  • photography
  • scrapbooking
  • creative writing
  • theatre/drama
  • discussion groups
  • special guests to talk about dementia and how to live with it in the best way possible
  • doggy visits

they definitely take on a very artistic approach, which fits in directly with my talents and interests. also why i would really enjoy working there.

when i got there, the participants were in a jazz music/improv session. since i have never worked with this age group before, i didn’t exactly know what to do. this was basically me the entire afternoon, unfortunately – i was still trying to familiarize myself with this foreign environment. so, i just sat in on the session, listening to jazz pieces and artists whose names and songs i don’t quite remember while the leader of the session was improvising along on the piano.

the best part was when an upbeat, “dancey” song came on and one of the staff members at the academy got up to dance with an old man. it was really a happy sight too see, that joy on his face and everyone else’s. another of these songs cropped up later on in the session, and more of the participants got up to dance. that same man that had danced earlier asked me to join him  (he is a great dancer, by the way!) and wow, we both had so much fun, i couldn’t stop smiling! and then i ended up switching partners and dancing with another old man, but since he claimed he “cannot dance”, i just led him in simple side-step and circular motions while he sang along to the beatles song that was playing. the dancing was most definitely out of my comfort zone, but was also hands down the highlight of my day. so friends, music + dance = happy people. remember that when you visit your grandparents next time.

the session concluded with a group improv. the session leader asked the participants to shout out any note that came to their head, and he improvised on those notes. the old lady sitting next to me leaned in towards me and said, “this is my favourite part”. it really is amazing to see how music can open up people and prompt discussion, as i will talk about later on in this post.

next up: lunch. nothing much to say there except for the fact that everybody, whether it be half-day or full-day participants, or staff, volunteers and caretakers, sat together at these round tables. since i hadn’t brought a lunch, i didn’t have the chance to sit with them and join in on their communication, but they definitely seemed to be having a great time. after i finished my lunch, i had a really education discussion with an occupational therapist about the tar (pictured below), which he played for me. he explained that there were different ways to play each note, and unlike the piano that produces only one sound per note, a tar player can change the nuances of each note to reflect his or her feelings. this is why it is such a great instrument to improvise on. pretty neat, if you ask me.

Tarfollowing lunch, this guy (a few years older than me, probably still in school) came in and led a sit-down exercise session with the participants, “choreographing” to the music he had chosen, playing in the background. simple stretches, rotations, and cardio workout specially designed for seniors. it doesn’t have to be hard like the stuff people my age do, something as small as “going fishing” and “chopping wood” was good enough to keep the participants’ bodies moving and active. i put those terms above in quotes because the guy used these actions to describe the exercises, making them easier to visualize and perform. i joined in too, and i must say it was a pretty decent workout despite sitting in a chair the entire hour.

the final session of the afternoon was something called music appreciation, rightful in its name because i most definitely enjoyed the music played – the songs will come shortly in this post. led by an award-winning singer-songwriter musician man, he brought in a bunch of original vinyls and just laid them all across the floor. each participant was to choose a record and one song from that record, then explain to the group why they chose what they chose. this prompted and facilitated discussion within the participants. i also found it was a really great way to allow for the participants to dig into their long-term memories and think about the past, when explaining their choices. here are the songs that were chosen (from what i wrote down):

  1. carole king – i feel the earth move
  2. harry belafonte – banana boat song (day-o) & jamaica farewell
  3. johnny cash – ring of fire
  4. louis armstrong – mack the knife & what a wonderful world
  5. the bee gees – you should be dancing
  6. leonard bernstein – i feel pretty (from west side story)
  7. miles davis – concierto de aranjuez: adagio (composed by joaquín rodrigo)
  8. the carpenters – close to you
  9. roberta flack – will you still love me tomorrow (i couldn’t find her version anywhere, so here’s carole king‘s. i mean, she did write this song so…)

boy, do i love “oldies”.
and i guess that ends my summary. unfortunately the academy doesn’t offer paid jobs to students, so i hope to volunteer there in the summer. if my application is successful, you will be sure to hear more from me about my experiences there.

until then, that’s all for now.