Tools of the Trade: Ocean Drum


I am always looking for musical materials and methods that will capture the attention of my older adult clients with moderate to late stage dementia. Because of where they are in the disease process, these folks often have a harder time engaging in singing, sharing in discussion, and instrument playing. Some clients also have more severe physical impairments that make it harder to participate in music-making experiences, such as worsening muscle contractures, declining trunk control, and weakening motor skills. Enter the ocean drum.

The ocean drum is one instrument that I think every facility specializing in dementia care should own. Even people with severe motor impairment and very low cognitive functioning can play this instrument with some physical assistance. The reward is a pleasant tactile and visual experience, and a soothing white noise, which is an extra bonus for people who are living with greater levels of anxiety.

Here’s a short video demonstrating how to use the ocean drum and spelling out just why I think it’s so useful for people who have dementia:

You can buy an ocean drum like the one I showed in the video here, or you can buy one with a fish pattern that is visible underneath the beads here.

I definitely prefer the manufactured drums for use with older adults for their quality, durability and more adult feel, but if you are looking for a craft project or are working with children or an intergenerational group, you should check out this tutorial for making your own ocean drum from my fellow music therapist Meryl Brown. Even more ideas on how to use the ocean drum and why it works so well are also available from fellow music therapist Davida Price – just click here.

Have you played an ocean drum before? Why do you think it works so well with older adults? Please leave a comment below!

P.S. For a video on another great instrument for music-making with older adults, check out my previous Tools of the Trade post.

Updated March 2013: Are you an eldercare professional or music therapist? If so, look for posts like this one on Soundscaping Source – the NEW home for articles on caregiving through music.

VIDEO: Grocery Bag “Koosh” Ball

Here’s another idea for a prop to use for movement to music or exercise, made with materials you probably already have on hand. (That means it’s FREE!!) When you’re done, you’ll have a lightweight, squishy ball that is easy to grab and throw, even for older adults with decreased hand and arm strength. (My 12-month-old loves it, too!)

This awesome idea comes from Peggy Lewis, my activity director friend who is full of great ideas for multi-sensory activities for people with dementia. She is the same activity director behind the post on indoor snow I shared last winter. 

For this project you’ll need a few plastic grocery sacks, a rubber band, and a pair of scissors. Watch this short video for the how-to:

Once you have your grocery bag balls made, you can pick out some great music for movement and exercise and try it out with this baseball-themed activity. Then, please come back here and let me know what you think!

Updated March 2013: Are you an eldercare professional or music therapist? If so, look for posts like this one on Soundscaping Source – the NEW home for articles on caregiving through music.

Make It Multi-Sensory

We all expect to hear music during music therapy sessions, of course, but one of the best things about music therapists is that we also know the importance of facilitating experiences that draw together all of the senses. Music therapists especially learn the importance of integrating visual and touch stimuli in music therapy sessions with all client populations, with the aim of finding a way to engage every person in the therapeutic process. We had a perfect multi-sensory experience last week in a music therapy group for older adults with dementia, but I cannot take credit for the idea that tied everything together – that came from the facility’s life enrichment coordinator, Peggy.

Our session today centered on music about winter weather, an ever-popular topic of discussion in the Midwest. We talked about sledding, snowball fights, and snowmen; sang “Button Up Your Overcoat,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Let It Snow;” and played instruments together with the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Near the end of the session, Peggy disappeared for a couple of minutes, and when she returned, she had a plastic tub full of fresh, white snow! She took the tub around to each resident and let them feel how cold and wet the snow was while we sang and played our wintry music. As we ended the session and I was packing up my equipment, Peggy was packing snowballs, letting the residents hold them, and eventually tossing a few across the room. By the time I left the facility, she was starting to build a miniature snowman, taking advice from the residents on how to complete the process.

I love how this session evolved! The music I was providing definitely drew the residents’ attention, helping them to be more alert and engaged in the group’s process. When Peggy brought in the snow, though, it tied together everything we had talked and sung and played about, giving the residents a real-time, concrete experience of the world outside their living space – even better than looking out the window. Best of all, this added experience was free and easy to clean up. (Goodness knows we’re always looking for inexpensive props for our group experiences!)

What this life enrichment coordinator did is what any person working with older adults can do to enhance their residents’ experiences in music therapy or general activity programming. You can make every experience even richer by targeting as many senses as you can. When you get a spark of inspiration like that, don’t be afraid to try it out and see what happens!

You tell me – when have you found great ways to add to the multi-sensory experience of music therapy or other activity programs? Please leave your comment below!

Updated March 2013: Are you an eldercare professional or music therapist? If so, look for posts like this one on Soundscaping Source – the NEW home for articles on caregiving through music.