Summer House Residents Connect Through Drum Circle


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Standing in a patio full of expressive faces, Vista del Monte Fitness & Aquatics Specialist Karen Rojas holds up a green drum shaped like a wineglass.

“This one’s called a djembe,” she says. “It’s from Ghana.”

The 10 or so residents live at Summer House at Vista del Monte, the retirement community’s memory care neighborhood. “Give it a try,” Karen said, placing a two-foot-tall drum beside a resident named Betsy, encouraging her to play.

“How about Jingle Bells,” Betsy called, tapping out a rhythm. “That’s pretty good,” exclaims a resident named Helen. “Good job Betsy!”

Many studies show involvement in participatory arts and music programs have a positive effect on mental health, physical health, and social functioning in older adults, regardless of their abilities.

“That’s perfect,” Karen tells Betsy, instantly seeing a smile on her face. Karen moves on to the next resident and repeats the exercise until everyone has a chance to try their hand at a unique beat that fits their mood for that moment. When everyone has had a turn, they all play together with enthusiasm, providing energy to the room.

Twice a week Karen helps Summer House residents discover or rediscover their rhythm. They gather either in a common area called The Alcove or on the adjacent patio to enjoy the mild Santa Barbara climate. The small group gathers in a circle and plays whatever moves them at the moment. Some play with intention and others decide less is more. Whatever beat they choose, Karen and their fellow drummers offer encouragement.

“The goal of the circle is to keep minds and bodies engaged,” Karen said. “And to help our residents who are experiencing cognitive difficulties like dementia and Alzheimer’s reconnect with the world. Sometimes I encourage them to follow the beat and other times I want them to be creative and do their own thing.”

Karen uses this rhythm-based tool for unity, to break down social barriers, promote freedom of expression, nonverbal communication and cooperation. A community drum circle is a noisy and fun group-friendly event, where people come together in order share their spirit, usually using nothing more than their hands. They empower each other in the act of celebrating community and life through rhythm and music. People of all levels of musical expertise come together and share their rhythmical spirit with whatever drums and percussion they are supplied. If participants would rather not play a drum they can wave, clap their hands or tap their toes instead or just listen. In between drumming, Karen leads the group in stretching exercises to increase mobility.

“People with memory issues can feel isolated because of depression, mobility issues and language difficulties,” Karen said. “Through drum circles, they can feel a sense of community and enjoy some social interaction. The act of drumming can be an excellent upper body exercise and can stimulate the heart. However, even a person who cannot physically drum can still receive stimulation through the rhythm. By the end of a a session, I think they are more energetic.”

About Vista del Monte

Vista del Monte is a multi-level retirement community that offers independent living, assisted living and memory care. Ranked among the top Santa Barbara senior communities, it is senior living at its best.