RHYTHM HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE--drumming with the elderly

A woman stood outside a room in a seniors’ center where I was facilitating a drum circle for about 15 people. “Come on in,” I said.  The woman peered in, interested, curious, but she stayed at the door.  “Join us!” I said,  smiling, waving her in, eager to make her feel welcome.

“That’s Molly,*” said program director, Jenn Mulcock.  “She can’t hear you.  She’s 101.”

101? I thought.  Really?  And while I thought that, here comes Molly, pushing her walker into the room.  “I’ve never played drums before,” she said.

That’s cool, I thought. I’ve never met anyone 101 years old before. 

“She’ll probably fall asleep,” said Jenn.

“While we play the drums?” I asked, laughing, not believing Jenn.  Jenn nodded. 

We helped Molly get settled, gave a her a mallet and a Remo Soundshape, a small round drum head she could hold and play easily.  We started to play.   And 101 year old Molly, who had never played drums before, played along.  Right in time.  We’d been improvising some complicated stuff that day–poly-rhythms–multiple, complementary rhythmic patterns played simultaneously.  No problem.  Molly was right there, playing clear and strong, like she was born to it. 

And the thing is, she was born to it.  We all are.  Our culture often leads us to believe that creativity is the realm of the famous, people in movies, or on TV, that you have to be wildly successful to be considered talented.  I don’t believe that.  I believe that musical, artistic, and creative is our natural state.  We just need to remember that, and not be afraid of exploring, feeling less than competent, of looking silly.  We need to remember to just play!  And we need to remember that anytime is a good time to start making music.  There’s no too late, no you can’t anymore. 

I’ve been drumming monthly at Equinox Terrace, an independent and assisted living facility for seniors in Manchester, VT for almost a year now.  I love working there.  People are people.  The human response to music and the joy of making music with caring community is the same, no matter what age you are.  People love it. 

Program director, Jenn Mulcock, who participates in all sessions with the residents, reports, “With every session, residents become more attuned and get more out of the drumming.” 

For me, as the facilitator, it feels miraculous.  People are learning.  Growing.  What a celebration, what an affirmation of life, marvelous and wonderful at any age. 

Jenn says she can see residents release stress, anxiety, and experience the joy of self-expression.  “We all let go of those standards of how a person ‘should’ act.  For me, it’s an out-of-the-box thing to do.  It’s very freeing for all of us.”

There are lots of wonderful stories.  One of our regular participants, Susan*, unfortunately, is often highly stressed and agitated.  But music-making brings her renewed life.  Jenn tells me, “Susan’s late husband was a musician.  Playing drums brings Susan’s past into her present.  It soothes Susan, opens her up, brings her back to life.”

Another participant, Christina, keeps such a strong beat now that she can help me facilitate.  I ask her to keep a beat going, then I can do something else entirely, demonstrating something new for the group.  Christina stays solid, square on the beat, keeping everyone together.

OK, back to our session with Molly, my new 101 year old drumming friend–after awhile, just as Jenn had predicted, Molly fell asleep.  Even with all of us drumming all around her.  (Like Jenn had said, Molly doesn’t hear so well.)  Molly slept for a little while.  Then she woke up.  Then she fell asleep again.  The pattern repeated itself over and over throughout the session.  No problem.  When Molly was awake, she seemed really happy, playing along.  When she slept, she seemed to have a good nap.  She never let the drum fall from her hands, which kind of amazed me.

Toward the end of the session, we played a rhythm game with our names.  We took turns, everyone saying his or her name in the usual way, and then letting the sounds, the syllables, create a repeatable rhythmic pattern, which we could chant.  Then we all played that name-rhythm together on our instruments.  Around the circle we went, and when we got to Molly, no surprise, she was sleeping.  I woke her up and taught her what to do.  And she did it.  Perfectly.  She led us in playing the rhythm of her name, as we all chanted and played over and over, “Mo-ly Ban-der-son, Mol-ly Ban-der-don.”  101 years old.  Leading us all, drumming her name.  She had never done that before.  Molly smiled like she was 5 years old.  Then she went back to sleep. 

Rhythm has no expiration date. 

* Names have been changed to protect participants’ privacy.




3 comments to RHYTHM HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE–drumming with the elderly

  • Michelle Eckert

    Im curious. Is this something that you do as a volunteer or do they pay you? Do you have to be a music therapist? Or an activities director?Im an occupational therapy assistant, could this be something that OT & activities could collaborate on? I would love to lead drum circles for the elderly. how would I begin?

    • saragail

      PS–Sorry, I made a typo in my initial response to you. The url I gave you for Arthur Hull is incorrect. The correct url: http://www.drumcircle.com.

    • saragail

      Hi Michelle,

      I’m concerned my system has messed up. I’m re-sending my initial reply to you, in case you didn’t get it:


      Thanks for your interest. I have gotten paid for this work, but of course, one could always volunteer. Anyone who can count to four and keep a steady beat can learn to lead drum circles. I suggest visiting Arthur Hull’s website, http://www.drumcircles.com, and getting a copy of his book, DRUM CIRCLE FACILITATION, BUILDING COMMUNITY THROUGH RHYTHM, https://www.amazon.com/Facilitation-Building-Community-Through-Softcover/dp/0972430717/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1503061231&sr=8-1&keywords=arthur+hull+books. Also, where do you live? I’m in northern VT. If you live close by, I can teach you. Otherwise, try to find drum circles in your area, find out who’s leading those, and talk with those people. And you’ll see on Arthur’s website, he offers “Playshops” where he teaches drum circle facilitation. If you can manage to attend one, I recommend them highly. Arthur is the world’s expert and as he’s in his 70’s now, may not be leading these much longer. He’s an experience not to be missed–beloved the world over for his teaching and promotion of drum circles. Pls stay in touch! Let me know how it goes!

      Saragail Benjamin

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