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Music therapy brings generations together at St. Louis-area nursing homes

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In the Seasons Music Program, rhythm sticks are a two-person instrument. Each person holds one stick as they tap them together to the beat of classics like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Joined in a love of song, separated only by a few generations.

The program brings preschool-age children to nursing homes around the St. Louis area for intergenerational music therapy. The sing-along sessions help both the young and old improve their memory, motor skills and attention spans. As a sweet bonus, the kids and their “grandfriends” develop relationships.

“It’s amazing how much faces will light up when the kids come,” said Victoria Lininger, a board-certified music therapist from St. Charles who started the program in 2015.

The hourlong sessions start with a warmup song followed by song requests and an activity. Lininger, aided by Jocelynn Wolfe, an intern from Maryville University’s music therapy program, accompanies on the guitar or violin. The kids are free to dance or interact with the nursing home residents by sharing percussion instruments. The schedule for the therapy sessions, generally held on Mondays and Fridays, is available on the Seasons Music Program Facebook page.

Intergenerational music therapy

Dorothy Shelton, a resident at at the Breeze Park Senior Living Community, taps musical sticks with 2-year-old Akira Gupta, of St. Charles, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Seasons Music Program brings toddlers into nursing homes for songs and stories for a type of intergenerational therapy. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

On a recent Friday at Breeze Park senior living center in Weldon Spring, Lininger passed out flash cards to the residents with pictures of food for a holiday feast. As she played “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” on the guitar, Wolfe called out “mashed potatoes” or “glazed carrots” and encouraged the kids to find the matching card in the crowd.

The kids are never forced to interact with their grandfriends, but they often start with high-fives and build up to holding hands and giving hugs.

The goal for each session is a one-to-one ratio of old and young attendees. Much of the music is childhood classics, a way to tap into the memories of older residents.

Dorothy Shelton, 80, requested “Jesus Loves Me” for the group. John Haddock, 93, said he loves the therapy sessions because it reminds him of playing the piano and organ.

“Those long-term memories of song lyrics are recalled after other memories have gone,” Lininger said.

Singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” in music therapy could feel demeaning for people in their 80s and 90s, but having the children there puts the nursing home residents in the role of mentors, Lininger said.

Lininger was inspired to offer intergenerational music therapy by her former professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Melita Belgrave, a specialist in the field.

As people age, they can feel more isolated and less useful to society. Intergenerational therapy programs allow them the opportunity to give back by teaching children about music, Belgrave said.

The older adults work on maintaining the same skills the kids are starting to learn, like hand-eye coordination, music memory and paying attention.

Intergenerational music therapy

Anna Grace Schellert, 3, hands a toy to Katherine Paydon on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, as she and her mother Erin Schellert (background center), of Kirkwood, and brother Sam, 5 months, participate in a musical game with residents at the Breeze Park Senior Living Community in St. Charles. Seasons Music Program brings toddlers into nursing homes for songs and stories for a type of intergenerational therapy. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

“Music is the tool they use together to develop those goals,” said Belgrave, who is now a professor of music therapy at Arizona State University.

While the therapy is intended for the nursing home residents, the children and their parents also benefit. Alma Boss of St. Charles brings Nora, 3, each week. Boss said she appreciates the opportunity for Nora to feel comfortable and enjoy spending time with people who use walkers, wheelchairs or oxygen.

The majority of residents at Breeze Park do not have visitors this young, said Julie Bayless, the community’s director of lifestyle enrichment. Several of the residents who attend music therapy have Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

“They may not remember tomorrow that the kids were here, but today, this is the best thing,” Bayless said.

Erin Schellert of Kirkwood brings Anna Grace, 2, and Sam, 6 months, to music therapy because “it’s important to me that my kids grow up understanding and respecting the older generations,” she said.

Plus, she added, “I love to see my kids make people smile.”

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