Drum Beats Bring Seniors Together

Friday, April 20, 2012

The TransNdanceNdrum Center is an otherwise unassuming blue house in Rosendale, NY. The exception is Tuesday evenings. That’s when the building shakes with the sound of djembe drumming.

Curious pedestrians stop and peer through the center’s windows as the all Women's Drum Circle gets into the beat. This group uses drumming styles from African, Caribbean and Native American traditions to foster a sense of community among its members.

One of the women who plays in the drum circle is 100-year-old Kesii Mackaye. She said it gives her a sense of freedom, and a different sense for how the elderly should be treated.

“Lots of times when people can’t do certain physical things for themselves anymore they’re relegated to nursing homes and places like that and there’s a very narrow concept of how you treat people who get older and that should be eradicated,” she explained.

The Women’s Drum Circle launched an Elders Drum Project in 1998. The group wants to help improve the life of seniors at nursing homes through this type of drumming music therapy. They even chose the word “elder” over “senior” to signify a person valued for their wisdom and experience.

The Elders Drum Project holds its gatherings in local nursing homes, led by co-founder and facilitator, Fre Atlast — or just Fre to her fellow drummers. “In a nursing home everyone kind of stays to themselves. There’s a way that people feel like they’ve come here to die and it’s a depressing sad kind of state of affairs. But as they began to play music together, they began to not only work when we worked but they began to wake up,” she said.

Atlast is an energetic 57-year-old woman who’s been drumming since she was five years old. More than any other instrument, she finds the drum to be an equalizer. “You could be 2, you could be 102. If you have a heart beat you can drum.”

Once a week Atlast helps elders at Rhinebeck’s Baptist Home at Brookmead rediscover their heartbeat. A group of 25 seniors, all in wheelchairs, gather in Brookmead’s sanctuary. The two story atrium is re-purposed for the drummers, with the mahogany pews all pushed towards the front pulpit leaving enough space for the drumming circle to convene in the back.

Drummers carefully grip mallets to play colorfully painted, upside-down five gallon plastic buckets. Some are even affixed together with heavy duty spring clamps to make makeshift drum kits. Fre stands in the center of the circle, leading the group by singing traditional American songs while playing a snare drum hung around her waist.

As the elders participate in the program, their arm strength increases, allowing some to graduate to djembe drums or a large custom made frame drum that can fit seven wheelchairs around it. The elders rhythms may be faint at first, but they pick up as their fragile arms and hands warm up.

Gingerly striking a paint gallon drum is 81-year-old Doris Swenson. She said she hasn’t played a drum since she was in her high school marching band. A severe case of arthritis in her right hand prevents her from participating in most of the crafts projects offered at Brookmead. But to Swenson’s delight, she can still grasp a mallet and strike a drum with her left hand. “I can’t use this hand so,” she explained, “oh yeah, I like rhythm, I like music.”

Another boisterous participant in the circle, singing loudly and shouting out song suggestions is 86-year-old Catherine Paccion. When the drum circle first came to the nursing home, she recalled that other seniors were hesitant to participate. But Paccion let everyone know they had nothing to fear. “So I says ‘Well, let me talk.’ So, I talked and it brought out the people.”

Ultimately, veteran drummer Mackaye said you have to stay true to yourself until the very last breath. And part of that, for her, is drumming, and the satisfaction it brings.

“I think it’s a hunger in people in anything to come together and make sounds, and nobody is looking down their nose at you, you know, so we make that happen and we try to make it happen more often,” she said.

Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Drummers gather as part of the Elders Drum Circle in the Brookmeade sanctuary.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Fre Atlast (left) leads the drum circle with Marci Berman, an occupational therapist (right).
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Drumming on brightly painted plastic buckets.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Elder drummer Doris Swenson bangs away on a djembe drum.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Mallets waiting to be used sit on a pew that has been pushed aside to make room for the drum circle.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Kesii Mackaye,100, at the Women's Drum Cirlce at the TransNdanceNdrum Center.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
The Women's Drum Circle's outreach program beagn the Elder Drum Circle.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Every Tuesday night the blue building shakes from the drumming taking place inside.
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Djembe Drums
Jenna Flanagan/WNYC
Seven wheelchairs can circle this drum.


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Comments [5]

Richard Marcantonio from great group

You need arm strength for the drums.

For wheelchair and power-chair users, I developed a simple, user-friendly piece of equipment called “The Wheelchair Gym” ,

will you be kind enough to look at it, if you feel it will be of help to your members, I will appreciate your making them aware of it.

We discount non-profit groups 25% with free shipping. If interested please contact me, I'm the well exercised old (83) old man on website home page. It is made in Congers, NY and shipped fully assembled.


914 591 9552

Apr. 18 2014 01:32 PM
Wahlbangers Drum Circle Organization from Los Angeles, CA

How wonderful to find a true peer of our mission and our services. Congratulations Fre on being recognized for your work! Please feel free to visit our website to learn more about our organization, and please contact us at your convenience.

May. 03 2012 01:48 PM
rosetta eddy from woodbury

This is so wonderful and amazing! Fre has opened the hearts of so many thanks to her patience and hard work! Thankyou to a true Goddess for bringing love to these Elders who sooo deserve it!

Apr. 23 2012 01:50 PM
Pat Sinatra

I wish Golden Hill in Kingston would employ this technique for community, exercise, and creative stimulation at their facility. Music is the universal language. This would be perfect for my mother-in-law who suffered from a stroke 14 years ago. She lost her speech and use of one arm but can sing and keep a rhythm. This would give her a good sense of self-expression.

Apr. 22 2012 01:26 PM
Caru Thompson

Thank you for a great article. Not only is drumming the best activity for creating community, any activity that empowers and moves elder's into a place of JOY is worth a mint in gold! And I know I'd rather drum than do PT or OT exercises!

Apr. 20 2012 01:32 PM

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