The Bellingham at Orchard cares for people living with memory loss. Most of the time, when a person is experiencing dementia, their short term memory is affected but they retain memories from earlier in life. As the staff get to know the residents, they look for clues about their backgrounds, so they can engage with them in a meaningful way. One of the most powerful tools they have for making a connection? Music.

In her position at the piano, resident Betty Jean is responsible for reading the music, and leading the other players in song. Photo courtesy The Bellingham at Orchard

When the COVID-19 pandemic brought social distancing into our lives, it meant that friends, relatives and other guests could no longer come to visit, so The Bellingham at Orchard had to reimagine ways to bring the healing powers of music to their building.

“Before Coronavirus came into effect, we would have entertainers come into the building to play music, and residents would sing along,” says Director of Activities Charles Harriman. “We would have all the residents packed in the room singing, and it was a grand time.”

Director of Marketing Jan Higman remembers adjusting to the new reality. “We tried to isolate residents in their rooms, like a lot of assisted living places are doing, but it’s really difficult in memory care. You could literally spend all day just getting people back into their rooms, because they can’t remember why they’re supposed to stay there. Also, many people living with dementia need to roam and wander. It’s an unfortunate side effect of this disease.”

Salish Band singer and Bellingham at Orchard Marketing Director Jan Higman proves that a mask can’t hold back the music. Photo courtesy The Bellingham at Orchard

They decided to get creative. They couldn’t have groups of people gather for activities anymore, so Harriman and Higman took over as performers. “Charles and I would pick a different song each day and roam around the halls singing to all the residents, trying to find creative ways to keep residents engaged,” Higman says. 

Socialization is extremely important for people with dementia; that social interaction can stave off depression, which could exacerbate all the symptoms of dementia. 

“After a while, we decided to sing in the activity room, and have a couple of residents in there with us,” says Higman. “We would maybe have them play a tambourine, to get them to be included. Then everyone in the general area could hear what was going on and feel like part of it, as well.”

Taffy’s brings her xylophone skills to help make the music happen, and provides an essential connection between staff and the residents they work with. Photo courtesy The Bellingham at Orchard

From its humble beginnings as a couple of troubadours roaming the hallways, the musical group—dubbed the Salish Band—evolved into a formidable lineup featuring an impressive array of instruments. “Our lead musician is Betty Jean, who plays the piano. She used to teach piano lessons, so she’s able to read music and learn new songs that the residents know and can sing,” says Harriman. “And I’ll hand out rhythm instruments to other residents—hand drums, bells, tambourines, chimes, shakers… we have rhythm instruments galore. Sometimes you find out that they can play a musical instrument. Maybe they used to play the accordion, so I’ll get a little accordion just for fun, and they can join in.”

And it’s not just the residents who are having all the fun—employees have joined in, too. “For example, Taffy plays the trumpet and the xylophone, Ronnie plays bongos and the flute, and Jordan plays the violin,” Harriman says. “Some of them may not have played since high school, so they’re relearning right along with the residents.”

Life Enrichment Coordinator Charles Harriman and his harp playing blur the line between work and play, when it comes to making music with residents. Photo courtesy The Bellingham at Orchard

Because they still need to take care to maintain a healthy distance between all players, they take advantage of the size of their building.

“There’s a piano in the activity room, so we’ll have a small group of employees and residents spread out around the room,” Harriman says. “Outside the activity room is the dining room, and there are residents’ rooms nearby. They can hear up and down the hallways, and some of them will stand at the door and sing along with us.”

While music has always been a part of life at The Bellingham at Orchard, this new way of joining together has proven to be effective for the well-being of the residents—and very popular, as well. There are already plans to expand the program in the future. 

“Before the lockdown, we would take our instruments and our singers to other facilities, and share music with them. And we hope to be able to do that again in the future,” Harriman says. “Everyone has a great time singing and playing music together.”


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