Music therapy incorporates computer technology to enhance life at Jefferson House

February 22, 2017

Fading eyesight prevents Marilyn Duncan, a Jefferson House resident, from playing piano as she did years ago or engaging in many activities. However, when music therapist Laura Bunker introduced her to the BEAMZ, an innovative electronic instrument, Duncan, 93, eagerly raised her hand to wave it through the laser beam, creating a variety of sounds including a drum beat to accompany a favorite tune.

Laura Bunker, music therapist at Jefferson House, left, guides resident Jennie Pawlik in using the BEAMZ, an innovative computer-based instrument, during a music therapy session. Photo by Rusty Kimball.

During a small group gathering, Duncan and three other residents smiled broadly as they were introduced to the BEAMZ, which engages people of all abilities, promotes fine and gross motor skills, and stimulates the brain through music and games. “I never saw anything like this,” exclaimed Jennie Pawlik, a resident who had been playing “Edelweiss” on the keyboard just a few minutes before.

One-to-one, Bunker encouraged the women to experiment with the BEAMZ, as she changed the instrumentation and musical style on her laptop. This new technology is just one aspect of the diverse music therapy program under Bunker’s direction. Since she was hired in September to lead the two-year grant-funded initiative, she is rarely seen without her acoustic guitar. Throughout the day she brings music to residents and rehabilitation patients.

“Residents have a wide variety of diagnoses and music therapy can be a good complementary treatment. The goal is to improve the quality of life,” she said.

The results have been remarkable, said Susan Vinal, executive director of Jefferson House, a department of Hartford Hospital which offers short-term/outpatient rehabilitation, skilled nursing and palliative care. She has seen how music therapy has reached residents who have been uncommunicative, sparked memories and brought people together to sing. “Music evokes a positive attitude that follows them throughout the day,” Vinal said.

Bunker provides individual and group music therapy sessions, utilizing her guitar and the piano. She has formed a choral group open to residents and staff which presents several concerts each year; residents even wrote a song under her guidance. She also utilizes an iPad. During a recent session, participants took turns drumming on the Garageband app and reading music on a virtual sheet music site. Vinal said nursing staff will call Bunker if they know a resident may become anxious or agitated when facing a stressful situation. Often it takes only a minute or two for the person to be soothed by a favorite tune.

Cindy Duncan, whose mother and father live at Jefferson House, said she has seen music enhance life for her parents and others. “Music is wonderful. It brings so much happiness and engages everyone,” Duncan said as she watched her mother experiment with the BEAMZ.

“Music touches people in different ways,” Bunker said. “My goal is to provide opportunities to reintroduce residents to something they love and give them a way to express themselves and make choices. A familiar song can be a wonderful starting point for bringing back memories and what’s meaningful for them. There’s always a song that is meaningful for each person,” she said.

For more information about music therapy at Jefferson House, located at 1 John H. Stewart Drive, call 860.667.4453.

Jefferson House