The Therapeutic Power of Music at The Nathaniel Witherell

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The array is impressive: A well-known opera singer, performers from Las Vegas casinos, a premier hula dancer from Hawaii, a famous rock star, a concert pianist, and others from near and far travel to perform for the residents of The Nathaniel Witherell. Music enriches one’s life, which is why Music Therapy is a focal point of Witherell’s recreational therapy program. Mary Bruce, Director of Therapeutic Recreation, and her staff of six, including two music therapists, make sure there is always a wide variety of high quality, live music to entertain and enrich the lives of Witherell’s residents. “

Music is therapeutic on many levels,” Mary says. “ It raises awareness and alertness, and leads to increased interaction with others. So, hearing an old familiar song brings on long-term memory, and reminds people where they were when they heard it.” Music also helps with physical therapy. “Singing is a good breathing exercise,” she adds. “It stimulates endorphins, which leads to more positive, happy feelings.” Music is a motivator, too. During exercise sessions, it motivates people to tap their feet or clap their hands. Most important- it’s just plain fun.

Every month, Witherell runs 60 programs that involve music. It’s woven into all of Witherell’s recreational activities- it’s played during Zumba and other exercise classes, and during all Christian and Jewish services. “Remarkably, many people with significant memory loss still recall the words and melodies from their lifelong participation in religious services.”There are music performances every Friday afternoon at 2:00, and the Bob Button 14-piece orchestra performs Saturday mornings from 10 to 12.

Besides that, Witherell goes all out and organizes theme parties at least once a month. On Saint Patrick’s Day, the two oldest Irish residents lead about ten bagpipers as Grand Marshals in an annual parade. The Witherell is decorated for the occasion and corned beef and soda bread are served. There are parties for Oktoberfest (Oompah Band included, of course), Mardi Gras (New Orleans Jazz), and Veterans Day (patriotic music). Christmas is celebrated for a month and there is never a shortage of school choirs that want to come by and sing. Witherell’s New Year celebration lasts one week.

Residents’ tastes also influence the mix. Mary Bruce interviews new arrivals to find out what type of music they like and what was current at significant times in their lives. Then she does whatever it takes to bring it to the Witherell. She writes letters to music agents, approaches performers in the supermarket, or finds a personal connection. One resident loved ballroom dancing, so Mary called The Arthur Murray Dance Studio Greenwich, which sent over some volunteers. “For my people, I’ll do anything!” she says.

One resident was very shy, barely made eye contact with anyone, and said little more than hi, yes and no. When Mary learned that he once sang in an all-male karaoke band she brought karaoke to the Witherell. Not only does he now sing, he actually leads the group. A former piano teacher loved classical music, so Mary brought in a singer from Carnegie Hall. Mary likes to say, “If I can’t bring you to Carnegie Hall, I’ll bring Carnegie Hall to you!”

Violins, pianos, drums; 50s music, Mozart, the Beatles, Jazz, Classical, the Blues − soloists, duos, big bands, even square dancing − whatever a resident wants is what Mary and her team strive to provide at the Witherell.

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