The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 29, 2010


Drumming up a family volunteer project


Beat it! From left to right, McKenzie (standing), Kristine, Katherine and Connor Melvin (Courtesy photo)

Looking back on her decision early last summer to find a volunteer activity that she and her three children could do together, Kristine Melvin says that a lot of possibilities came to mind. Maybe they could distribute food at the Greater Boston Food Bank, or tend the gardens at Gaining Ground in Concord, or help elderly women in a nursing home with their hair styling and manicures.

One thing she did not picture was taking part in a drumming circle. But that’s where Kristine, along with McKenzie, 12, Connor, 14, and Katherine, 15, ended up devoting their efforts last summer. The desire for a family-friendly community service project led them to Carleton-Willard Village, a graduated-care retirement community in Bedford. It turned out that the staff member most eager to put the three young people and their mother to work was the music therapist. She needed help running her weekly drumming classes in the Alzheimer’s unit.

The Melvins could not initially imagine why the drumming class was such an important item on the schedule for a group of elderly people with severe memory loss, but Carleton-Willard’s music therapist, Lori Leslie, explained it to them. Drumming involves motor skills that need to be exercised, and the repetition of drumming patterns is beneficial to people with memory loss. “Lori told us that drumming is something everyone can do, even if they are nonverbal,” Kristine said. “When you can’t talk, it’s hard to feel like part of a community. But drumming together becomes a form of communication and gives them back that sense of community.”

Leslie also explained to the Melvins why their help was so critical. Not only is it always useful to have plenty of strong young people around to help transport the elderly residents and keep an eye on their safety, but simply setting up the drums for each class and putting them away afterwards involves a certain amount of physical labor. Moreover, the sight of cheerful young faces was often enough to draw residents who might otherwise not have bothered to show up for the group. When Leslie went around the unit knocking on apartment doors to remind everyone that it was time for drumming, she sometimes brought McKenzie with her for just that reason: merely knowing the three kids were waiting for them inspired more residents to participate.

“It was really interesting to get involved with the residents,” commented Katherine, a sophomore at Lawrence Academy. “It was a good experience for us to see what they were like. Going in to a nursing home, you might have a scary picture of old people who can’t talk to you or communicate, but they did talk with us, and they were really nice.”

Still, the specific dynamics of working on an Alzheimer’s unit were sobering, Kristine pointed out. As much as her children interacted with the residents and formed personal bonds through the conversations, the residents usually didn’t recognize the children at their next visit, and sometimes the Melvins would look forward to seeing residents they’d become fond of only to discover that particular resident was in failing health or had died since their last visit.

It was not uncommon for the residents to mistake the young people for their grandchildren, and Connor once found himself playing along rather than trying to correct an elderly woman who asked him to take something home for her, thinking he was a family member and would be going to her house.

“One thing that was really cool was that I met a couple who lived there together and had stuck together for a very long time. I thought that was very cute,” observed McKenzie, a sixth grader at the Carlisle middle school.

Connor, who is in eighth grade at the Fessenden School, discovered he was in high demand for more than his good manners and willingness to help out. He’s a talented pianist with a repertoire of Broadway tunes that his elderly audience loved to hear. “We found out that even if they can’t talk or remember things from week to week, they still remember all the words of these songs they knew when they were younger,” Kristine said.

For Connor, the accolades were flattering. “I like having a live audience, and they thought I did a great job,” he smiled. One comment particularly took him by surprise. “Once after I finished playing, a lady said I should be on the TV show ‘America’s Got Talent.’ It was such a nice compliment, but it was also a surprise that she knew about a show I watch!”

Katherine admits that when her mother announced they were going to look for a community service project to do together over the summer, she wasn’t initially thrilled, but her mother explained why it was important. “Community service is a value I’ve tried to emphasize throughout their lives,” Kristine said. “I tell them that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected.’ Our kids live in a bubble here. It’s important for them to understand all they can do to help others.”

Connor had worked on school projects at the Greater Boston Food Bank and Katherine had raised money for Children’s Hospital, and the whole family takes part in charitable projects for the disadvantaged through their church, but the drumming class taught them that charity doesn’t apply only to poverty. With its elegant interiors, beautiful landscaping and full complement of programming, visitors perceive immediately that the residents of Carleton-Willard are not economically disadvantaged, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have important needs that volunteers can fill.

“We worked with people who needed and appreciated our help,” Kristine said. “These people are in a difficult situation. They are dealing with things that hopefully my kids won’t have to deal with, and that their grandparents aren’t facing. It was a way to show them someone else’s life experience vastly different from theirs. Now they understand this: when you think you’re having a bad day, think of someone who can’t remember their children anymore.”

Katherine agrees that this was a good way to understand that there are many ways of needing help besides financially. “Donating money wouldn’t have helped these people,” she said. “We needed to physically be there in order to help them.” ∆

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