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Nursing Home Residents Keep the Beat for Health


On a quiet tree-lined street in the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the afternoon silence is broken by the sound of drums coming from where you would least expect, a neighborhood nursing home where elderly men and women have begun beating drums for better health.

Nancy Hahn has a way with older people. On this day, as she does twice a month at Vincentian de Marillac nursing home Hahn pushes all the living room furniture against the wall and invites the elderly residents into a drum circle.

About a dozen or so in wheelchairs and walkers take up the challenge. One woman rubs a stick back and forth over the jagged ridges of a small wooden frog. Another hits together two long yellow plastic bats called boomwackers.

Hahn starts with a love story. "You know it was an autumn day like this one when I met my husband. And I was so thrilled to be spending time with him that I wished the time would never end."

The story turns into the popular old standard, Shine on Harvest Moon. Residents recognize the tune and chime in on and off the beat.

Then Hahn revs up the musical action, instructing the women to beat their names and shake their noisemakers whenever Hahn takes a step. After that it is a free for all. "Everybody play on your own, whatever you want to hear. You cannot make a mistake in a drum circle. Anything goes."

Hahn says the drum circle is a delight to lead. She treasures moments when she sees glimpses of the residents' more vigorous younger selves. "I get to see in a drum circle who their inner persons are. I get to see their sense of humor and the enjoyment they get from each other."

Veronica Gault, 82, nods in agreement. "It just makes you feel good. It makes me feel happy," she says. Rose Lubowski, 89, says it lifts her spirits too. "Oh, I love it. I like to participate, and I like the sound of the drums. Sometimes when I feel really bad and I hear the sound of the drums, I perk up."

None of this surprises Sister Donna Marie Beck, who came for today's session. She heads the music therapy department at Duquesne University and says that ancient cultures recognized the healing power of drums. "Only now are 21st century researchers beginning to document its benefits."

Sister Donna Maria says the proof that it works as therapy was evident today at St. Vincentian de Marillac, where elderly residents wore smiles as they shared the rhythms of life.