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Program with drum maker Remo offers new outlet for Santa Rosa nursing home residents

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Rehab tech Keane Kheva gently took Elmer Dragolovich’s left hand and helped guide it over the tube-shaped drum.

Slouching slightly over the instrument, his eyes downcast, Dragolovich, 99, seemed almost unaware of the thumping beat he contributed to accompany “Home on the Range,” the classic western tune.

But despite outward appearances, Dragolovich, a resident at Park View Post Acute nursing home in Santa Rosa, was, according to medical experts, likely experiencing some fundamental brain activity triggered by music. The visual evidence came when Kheva pulled his hand away and Dragolovich continued to drum, stopping in rhythm with other Park View patients.

“The drumming kind of roused him and brought him back,” said Jennifer Raymond, director of rehabilitation at Park View. “What’s left is what’s important not what’s gone.”

No ordinary drum circle, the exercise at Park View echoes the increased use of musical activities in senior homes and care facilities across Sonoma County and the country to rouse or engage those who can no longer communicate with words.

The efforts make use of new technology, including iPods, to revive old tunes and trigger memories for dementia patients and others with debilitating mental conditions. Family members often are enlisted in the music-making ensembles with their own instruments or through dance.

The music programs are part of a larger shift in U.S. health care, driven in part by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, that is geared toward assessing the success of institutions such as hospital and skilled nursing facilities by patient satisfaction and quality of life.

The Park View drumming program, called Rhythmic Abilities in Dementia, is part of an extensive music program at the Santa Rosa nursing home. The goal is not simply entertainment but to improve the well-being of patients with behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.

Staff members at the 116-bed skilled nursing facility on Montgomery Drive are quick to point to the peer-reviewed scientific and medical research to support the efforts. In one study, by a team from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, such exercises are categorized as “diversional activities.”

Drumming “is a form of music therapy that relies on the fundamental subcortical levels of the brain,” the authors wrote. “It does not need a melody or require following a song; it’s basis is rhythm, which is a primal sense of life and movement.”

The study, published this year in the Journal of Gerontological Nursing, goes on to say that the act of drumming increases participation among those with severe dementia and decreases withdrawal and social isolation, while the rhythm produced can reduce anxiety.

The drumming exercise is based on a music therapy and wellness program developed by percussion instrument giant Remo. Mostly known for their popular drum set head, Remo created a series of specialized drums for the program and provides the training for places like Park View.

“Our brains are hardwired for music,” said Alyssa Janney, who manages Remo’s HealthRhythms program. Janney said organizations like Park View are “transforming the quality of life of the people they service. It’s not just something that makes them happy. We actually know from the science that they’re transforming the quality of life.”

A second music-related program at Park View, called Music Together Intergenerational Program, brings moms and their children together in a lively, music-making session. Kids of all ages dance and make music.

A third music program, called Lighting Up Lives with Music, is done in partnership with the Evening Rotary Club in Santa Rosa. The program, similar to one used at Healdsburg Senior Living, uses music playlists with individualized music on iPods.

The Rotarians interview the residents and their families to identify songs that hold special meaning to the patients as a way of improving their mood and decreasing negative behaviors associated with dementia.

“We’re just trying to bring innovation to longterm care. We’re trying to tailor our approach to each individual resident,” said Park View Executive Director Adam Willits. “It’s tapping into what makes people tick.”

Willits and others at Park View said the music programs are a reflection of the changing approach to elder care in the United States.

The federal government will soon release metrics for measuring the progress of skilled nursing facilities, just as it has for hospitals, said Dr. John Hurwitz, a consulting physician at Park View.

Raymond said that rather than focusing on things that dementia patients can no longer do, therapists now zero in on what they can do.

“What we’re focusing on is assessing individual people instead of groups, taking one person and delving into their background,” she said. “Trying to bring activities here that build on those past lives and experiences. Music is one of those past memories.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@press democrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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