The band and dance troupe at the MultiCare Adult Day Health Center is a work in progress.
When each hour-long session begins, a large activities room is half filled with tables, and most of the performers seated around them are in wheelchairs.
“Most of the participants have a brain injury or down syndrome, dementia or injuries,” said the group’s maestro, Robyn Silva. “I have one gentleman who was hit by a dump truck.
“We have a bell choir, but they don’t pick up the bells up like most choirs. We give them a little hammer and they whack the bells. We have one guy in the group who falls asleep in the middle of ‘You Are My Sunshine ...’”
Silva’s laugh is affectionate. She and a music partner, Eileen Blodgett, visit the Tacoma facility four times a month to play music with those who want to participate.
It offers a challenge neither had faced before. But that doesn’t stop them from involving these disabled individuals – or keep them from enjoying it.
“I’ve played the ukulele quite a few years, and I’m teaching this group a song Irish immigrants taught in Hawaii,” Silva said. “They also created a dance to the song, and we’re doing that. The ukulele is a good size for those in wheelchairs – guitars are too big.”
OK, a secret here. In their session this week, those playing the ukulele weren’t doing much more than strumming as Blodgett played her guitar and sang “The River is Wide.”
They strummed with passion, however, and around the tables, hands shook whatever instrument they held – maracas, tambourines, drum sticks. Smiles were everywhere.
With Silva working with them, they danced an expressive Hawaiian number, waving their hands and, when possible, their hips. One dancer was wheelchair bound, so he danced from the waist up.
The second dance seemed even more popular: a Swiss clapping dance, complete with costumes. Everyone was given an apron, one green wristband and one orange wristband.
To Blodgett’s music – and that of the ukulele players, of course – Silva had the dancers clap hands with one another with the assistance of color coding. Orange to orange, green to green.
A lot of laughter ensued.
“There’s never a day I’m here I don’t want to come,” Blodgett said. “They’re so happy to see us, to take part in this. We wanted to share our music with those who didn’t have access, and this has more than done that.”
The center is delighted to have them.
“Most of our folks, our seniors, are living at home with family members, though we have some from group homes,” said Colleen Schmidt, one of the center’s therapists. “Our dancers are mostly our young folks – 21 to 50.
“Anyone who wants to take part can and does. Everyone here has a medical or therapy need.”
The center exists to provide physical therapy and give caregivers a respite. All patients are shuttled to and from the center, spend four hours – either in the morning or the evening – and returned home after a full meal.
The center staff consists of two nurses, two therapists, an exercise specialist, two activity staff members and a social worker.
The music “lessons” are anything but traditional.
Silva, who teaches fiddle and mandolin for a living (see Littlebirdfiddling.com) brings neither instrument. Six years ago, when she began work at the center, all she had were tambourines.
Now? Thanks to a donation this month from Ted Brown Music Outreach, the center has a dozen new ukuleles to go along with tambourines, drums, maracas and sticks with which to keep time.
Silva has met and overcome challenges she never dreamed of.
One woman was almost completely paralyzed, able to move her head and one foot. Silva put a bell on her toe, and she was tickled to be a part of the band.
Several would-be ukulele players had hand problems, so she used Velcro to attach picks to their thumbs.
The music is, without question, more therapeutic than artistic. For people whose lives have led them into a world of doctors, nurses, quiet rooms and solitude, this one hour each week is magical.
Some in the room seem not to be following the music, to be staring into space. During the hour session this week, however, those folks still broke their reverie at some point to sing or tap a foot, a table.
“The payoff for me is when they start screaming when I walk in the room,” Silva said. “They know who I am, what I’m there for. And they give back.”