Joyce has the most luminous blue eyes imaginable. Betty smiles and is quiet. Annie cannot break eye contact. And Don excuses himself to go to the bathroom and never returns. They are all part of my friend Ed’s drum-therapy group that meets weekly for an hour in the lobby of their retirement and assisted living center. Ed, who is a professor emeritus of Graduate Psychology, learned to lead the drum circle from his younger sister, who now lives in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. He has brought this particular kind of therapy to the center to give the residents some way out of their increasing solitude and loneliness. I joined the group this week to help Ed and to get to know the folks who are in the group.
I am comfortable around the elderly, possibly because I figure I’m not that many years from being one of them. What struck me first was the staff who didn’t “baby talk” any of them. They were treated with respect and not patronized, even though they moved slowly and sometimes had to have instructions repeated. But these were people who had once enjoyed meaningful careers, had held positions of influence and power, and had been kind and loving teachers and mentors of others. Most of all, they were individual human beings with their own stories to share. Now that their lives were much closer to the end than the beginning, they were starting to recognize they were slowly becoming less and less visible as the ravages of age and illness take their toll almost on a daily basis.
Be that as it may, though, they have not given up and still want to participate in the game of life, even if it’s only joining in to beat out a rhythm on a set of ingenious home-made drums that Ed had created. As they loosened up and began to feel more comfortable and less self-conscious, I was reminded of a quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist and author who first outlined the five stages of grief, specifically when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When I talked and played the drums with this group of eight individuals, it was the voice of Kubler-Ross in my head that I could hear above the drum beats: “Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”
Ed had me play a steady beat on the drum that hung around my neck while the others could follow along on their own. Before we knew it, some were introducing a slight variation or two. When Ed congratulated them on their ingenuity, you could see the broad smiles form on their faces. We told them that they were beginning to think like jazz improvisators. We also varied the dynamics by introducing crescendos and decrescendos so they could add some interest to the pounding. They laughed when I said that variation was important, since the same sound repeated continuously was monotonous and resembled road kill … it was flat.
We also got them to play as softy as they could to as loud as they could manage which seemed to really loose the free spirits within a few. They were moving to the beat and enjoying themselves and keeping up with the rhythm. A few more weeks of this and I’m sure we’ll have some dancers put aside their drums and get up and start shaking a tail feather. Joyce already chose to wear a bracelet with bells on it so she could drum with one hand and shake the other.
They were showing us, their fellow residents and themselves that life was what it was they were experiencing at the moment. And they were in the moment, not in some refracted light of ancient memories or anticipation of a visit from a relative who might never show. In the midst of that amazement and joy, I was content for a moment just to watch and listen without saying a word.
This small group seemed disappointed when the hour quickly raced by. In this short time, they had removed the masks of fear, insecurity, and loneliness to beat their drums loudly, to almost jump up and down like their grandchildren performing in their garage bands. Joyce even volunteered to lie on the floor next week in testimony to the vibrations she anticipated she would feel that would travel from the drums to the floor to her. I suspect those vibes will make an even greater journey with these dear souls whose eyes that day revealed the great celebration they were enjoying.
Ed has brought a new spark to some of the lucky few who live there who still have their sense of adventure and want to dance to the music of time and court the flowers and sparks that it gives off. As Joyce said as we were leaving, “Be sure to come back. I want more of all that jazz.”