HYANNIS, Mass. — On Flag Day about 10 seniors sat around a piano while Brianna LePage, a music therapist at The Gathering Place in Eastham, played patriotic tunes.
It was hard not to toe tap and sing along to “The Star Spangled Banner.” And that’s exactly what many in the room did as an hour flew by.
Some of them suffer from dementia and other cognitive impairments that make it difficult to recall even relatives’ names. But they knew the words to the songs from their childhoods, LePage said.
Music lives in a part of the mind that isn’t easily destroyed by dementia, said LePage, who studied music therapy at the Berklee College of Music in Boston after graduating from Provincetown High School.
“It’s one of the final areas of the brain to go,” she said. “Music stays with us for our whole lives.”
After college, LePage headed to the Bronx for an internship at the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, which is run by the renowned music therapist Dr. Concetta Tomaino and the famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of “Musicophilia,” and “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.”
Sacks and Tomaino taught her a great deal, said LePage, who, in addition to singing, plays piano and guitar.
But she learned the most about music therapy from her next job, working with a 94-year-old patient at the Kings Harbor Multicare Center in the Bronx.
“This woman was totally isolated and alone, but I gravitated toward her,” LePage said. “I tried guitar, I tried piano and it just didn’t work.”
But LePage kept trying and then the woman began to recognize her from across the room. She opened up, and regained as much function as she had when she first entered Kings Harbor, LePage said. Although her mind was compromised, her spirit rebounded.
“She called me Jenny, her childhood friend,” LePage said. “I would play for her and she sang with me.”
The theory behind music therapy is to use the functioning part of the brain, where music lives, as a way to stimulate other parts of the mind.
“I’ve had patients who cannot say a word but they can sing the words to an entire song,” LePage said.
Music also makes people more cheerful and social, she said.
That’s why when LePage, 36, returned to Cape Cod in 2004, and began performing at senior centers (she also worked at assisted living and nursing homes on the Cape until she had a baby last year) the director of The Gathering Place, Jill Benelli, shoved a job application in her hand.
“We needed an activities director and I said to Brianna, ‘You have to work here,’” Benelli said.
LePage started her job in April at The Gathering Place, which is a regional adult day care program located in the Eastham Senior Center. For $35 to $45 a day, a person will be cared for and entertained five days a week.
Transportation, field trips, and meals are provided. The 12 or so people who currently attend range from those who just need to get out of the house to seniors with mental and physical impairments.
“Previous to having Brianna here, we had performers come in, and those were always our best days,” Benelli said. “Now (we) have her and they’re all good days.”
“I was depressed and isolating at home,” said Ruth Johnston, 83, a Gathering Place regular who lives in Eastham. “It’s wonderful here. I love listening to Brianna sing and play. It’s made me really happy. People have noticed the change in me. The staff makes you feel loved.”