Recreational therapist enhances patient experience with drum circle

In a brightly-lit lounge on the Lincoln Terrace at St. Peter’s Hospital (SPH) in Hamilton, a small group of patients sit and wait quietly in a circle. In the corner of the room rests a collection of drums – an unexpected find on a hospital ward. They, too, wait in silence. A hint of anticipation fills the air.

Within moments, excited chatter occupies the space. One-by-one, Darcy Gascoigne, a recreational therapist at SPH, picks up the drums and places them in front of each patient.

By seemingly magnetic force, hands meet instruments and a full-bodied rumble grows to fill up every corner of the room, spilling out into the hallway. The beat from each drum is unique; curious taps echo alongside more confident thumps, volume ranging from soft to thunderous and everywhere in between.

“It sounds like the ocean,” says a voice from somewhere in the circle.

Two men in the group are blind. They use their hands to explore the surface of the drums, commenting on how it feels against their skin.

“It feels rough, like sandpaper,” says one of them.

In just a matter of minutes, the mood of the group has transformed. Expressions are lit and animated as everyone enjoys the first few moments with their drum, as though they’ve reconnected with an old friend.

“It makes me happy,” says one woman.

The drum circle is a regular occurrence at St. Peter’s. Every other week, patients in the Behavioural Health program gather as Darcy leads them through a series of games and exercises involving the drums. Each session usually lasts about 30-45 minutes.

“Immediately following the drum circle, I find that the participants are much more relaxed,” says Darcy. “They’re laughing, joking, smiling, and much more animated than before.”

Darcy says music is a powerful way to instill a sense of calm and focus in patients, and the drums, funded through the Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation, add an element of engagement and empowerment that is particularly beneficial for those who have cognitive or other impairments.

“Drum circles allow patients with dementia an avenue to express their inner voice,” says Janis Humphrey, clinical manager for the Behavioural Health program. “They help to enhance not only the patients’ physical ability, such as using their hands to tap the drums, but the ability to express feelings and emotions through their own music pattern.”

The drum circle is one of many activities offered through the recreational therapy program at St. Peter’s Hospital.