Stonehill Students Bring Healing Songs to Seniors in West Bridgewater

April 24, 2018

Fred Freeman raised his arms in the air Monday, a ray of sunshine glinting in his lively blue eyes.

For a moment, he was back on the baseball field in Riverton, New Jersey, — a time and place before the war, before his adult life. Before dementia began to take its toll.

Emily Damore, a Stonehill junior from Abington, and David Currier were singing “Take Me Out to The Ball Game,” and memories of Freeman’s minor-league baseball days in New Jersey (some 80 years ago, now) danced to life before his eyes.

Freeman, 97, was taking part in the “Soundtrack to Life” program at the Life Care Center of West Bridgewater, where Stonehill students like Damore bring music to the nursing home’s residents.

“For it’s one ... two ... three strikes you’re out ...” sang Currier (one of the Life Care Center administrators behind the program), grasping Freeman’s hand.

“At the ole’ ball game,” Freeman responded, raising his hands to the sky.

It was five simple words from Freeman, but the melodic phrase seemed to unlock a world of memories that were otherwise unattainable for the Army Air Corps veteran and former Walpole and Foxboro resident.

Phyllis Krastanov, the facility’s activities coordinator, held up a team photo of Freeman’s 1939 Riverton Double-A squad, reading off some of the names.

There’s “Hoot” Gibson, she pointed out. And that’s you, Fred. And this one, they called him “Shorty,′ it looks like.

“Oh, I remember Shorty,” Freeman said, touching the 79-year-old photograph. “He was a good man.”

The baseball sing-a-long wrapped up about a 30-minute session with Damore, one of Stonehill’s stalwarts of the “Soundtrack of Life” program. The Abington native and 2015 Cardinal Spellman graduate visits the West Bridgewater facility just about every week she can.

She began Monday morning by presenting Freeman with a pair of over-the-ear headphones, offering up songs by Frank Sinatra (“Fly Me To The Moon” was one) and standards like “God Bless America.”

With the headphones on, it was only a matter of moments before Freeman’s eye shone, and his hands started moving.

“Before the music, you see Fred struggle with anxiety,” Krastanov said. “He wants to say something, but doesn’t quite know how. But when you put on the music, there’s this sudden transformation — it really is just like that.”

Damore, a music major who hopes to pursue music therapy, said she notices a shift in Freeman’s awareness -- “he’ll comment on a picture, or a sound he’s listening to. He becomes more aware of what’s happening.”

And when you catch Freeman on a good day, Damore said, he’ll begin to whistle aloud.

“There is something magical about it,” she said. “I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like music — it’s just part of the human experience.”

How does this music therapy work? The science is not exactly clear yet, but it seems the musical parts of the brain are the last to be touched by dementia and Alzheimer’s, Stonehill associate professor of music Lisa Redpath said.

“If we can light up that part of the brain, it can help them to become significantly more communicative,” she said.

About 16 Stonehill students participate in the volunteer program. Students will work personally with several residents each week, but have also helped in group activities like singalongs and special Christmas events. They’ve also done a musical Bingo event, playing songs and inviting residents to call out the names and artists.

“Music takes them back in time,” said Currier, a musician himself and LCCA’s director of dementia education. “It let’s them travel back in time to when everything is clear again.”

The inspiration for the program came from an award-winning 2014 documentary called “Alive Inside,” which explored music therapy with dementia patients.

In the film, director Michael Rossato-Bennett discovered exactly what was replaying in West Bridgewater Monday: music seems to bring those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s back to life.

“I would like to say it’s all scientific, and all biological,” said Currier, who was once a drummer for the rock band Boston, “but I think it’s spiritual, too. No one can tell me it isn’t. It’s this tribal thing, this thing that goes all the way back to hearing our mother’s heartbeat.”