Some write songs. Others listen to classical music. Some meet one-on-one, while others join in groups. Music helps some regain physical skills, and others to sharpen their memory.
Music therapy comes in many forms at Sherrill House, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center at 135 S. Huntington Ave. that has a rare in-house program.
“There’s a myth out there that music therapy is [just] sing-alongs,” said Dianne Tow, who has been Sherrill House’s full-time music therapist since 1997.
It’s a myth with a kernel of truth, because most senior homes that offer music therapy use outside contractors who provide more generic programming, she said.
Sherrill House’s in-house program allows for individualized therapy more suited to each person’s needs and tastes. There is something for each of the three major populations at Sherrill House: nursing home residents, people with Alzheimer’s disease, and rehab patients.
The personal touch is considered key at Sherrill House, as the Gazette saw last week in a tour of the not-for-profit facility with CEO Patrick Stapleton. The building has well-appointed rooms and amazing views of Olmsted Park, but just as notable was how many clients and residents Stapleton knew by name.
It’s part of philosophy he jovially summed up as, “If they want coffee yogurt, get them coffee yogurt.” That is, get to know clients and residents personally, then fulfill the little personal preferences that make them feel more at home.
For Tow, that means assessing each person’s physical, mental, emotional or spiritual needs, and how the extraordinary power of music can help them.
“We really focus on the active participation,” Tow said, adding, “They don’t have to be musicians in order to participate.”
There are about a dozen different programs to choose from. They are bolstered by music therapy students from Berklee College of Music, where Tow is a guest lecturer, and Lesley University.
In the simplest form, Tow may visit a room with a guitar and play a person’s requests, or have them join in with a drum if they choose.
A more active option is the songwriting program, where participants write their own lyrics to a familiar tune. The program typically follows a theme, such as a recent Presidents Day session that addressed what the songwriter would do if he or she were president. Other sessions take on “heavier topics, like aging,” Tow said.
A program for Alzheimer’s patients aims to soothe “sundowning behaviors,” a response of increased confusion and agitation that comes in the late afternoon. The cause is a mystery, but could be related to the change in the work and school social cycle at that time of day. The therapy provides relaxing music to provide a sense of stability and purpose.
“What’s amazing is, you have people with Alzheimer’s who may not know their own names or recognize their families, or even be able to say a sentence that makes sense, but they are able to sing perfectly a song they learned from their youth,” Tow said.
Whatever the program, classical music is still a popular option among today’s senior generation. But not everyone is alike, and Tow adapts as necessary.
“If there’s someone who hates classical music, it’s going to have no therapeutic benefit,” she said.
The types of music used as therapy in senior programming likely will shift as well, Tow said, as fans of today’s diverse and sometimes unorthodox styles of pop music age.
“In another 20 years, it’s going to be really different,” she said. “You’re going to have someone who likes country and Western sitting next to a metalhead.”
Tow, who also sings in a rock group at her church, naturally has her own musical preferences that don’t come into play much at work.
“I actually love alternative indie rock,” she said. “The more obscure, the better.”
With Sherrill House’s individual touch and senior population, Tow is also called upon to provide a profound form of therapy: arranging music for the dying, often at the family’s request.
“I have the opportunity to get to really know someone and follow them through, all the way through to death,” Tow said. “One of my favorite parts of the job, as morbid as it sounds, is to be with a person as they’re dying. It’s a privilege and an honor to be with a person at that time. It’s a privilege to escort them to whatever is beyond.”
For more information on Sherrill House and its music therapy program, call 617-731-2400 or see sherrillhouse.org.