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In My Community
Tom Gill - Drumming to the Beat
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(Tom Gill of Rhythm for Unity)

Smiles gleamed throughout the room at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, as drummer Tom Gill led a drumming circle filled with nearly 35 people, most who were from the Waukesha County Caregiver Intermission, on Thursday, July 2.

“So we’re going to go on a little bit of a journey together as they used to say take the trip, but never leave the farm,” Tom said to the audience members. “I want to give you the confidence so that you can say I’ve got this.”

Tom’s journey doesn’t involve buying a plane ticket and traveling to exotic tropical islands. It involves an open ear and a few flicks of the wrist. Tom leads the journey from the middle of the open circle. The approximately 35-audience members ranging from under the age of ten to about 80 years old, many with Alzheimer’s and dementia, sat each with their own individual African- style Remo drum. The first beat is simple and most likely one of the first words uttered by many of the audience member’s. It’s called the “Mama beat.” Everyone beats twice on their drum set to the two syllables “ma-ma.” Eventually throughout the hour-long event audience members all became one with their in-sync beats.
“Drums are used to create community and celebrate community,” Tom said. “Everything from birth to crops to funerals to marriages to other kinds of rituals, coming of age is a particularly important one.”

To many drumming is played for the sound of music, but to Tom it’s about coordinating everyone as though they are one. About 17 years ago, Tom, a former engineer, got the itch to start drumming when he realized that he wanted to pursue a career where he could not only touch others, but be impacted by the world in a more personal way.

“I love the fact that I can be apart of something that affects people in a positive way,” Tom said. “I get to witness that and it really excites me because every time it’s unique to help people experience their potential.”

 Tom then began his business Rhythm for Unity, where he facilitates groups of all ages and abilities such as preschoolers, summer camps, nursing homes and adult day cares. His oldest drumming circle was a group of 25 nuns, in which the youngest was 89 years old. At this particular hour-long event, more than one-fourth of the audience members were above the age of 60.

“I see engagement in people that are used to just sitting there and taking it in,” Tom said. “I see creative expression for many people that have never done this and at the end they might say we were really good.”

Audience members, Claudia Corning and her husband Wayne Corning use the drumming circle as more than a way to bond after their 57 years of marriage. Wayne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2009. The couple began attending the events five years ago after Wayne had become very sick. Claudia believes the comradery of the music has a positive outcome for Wayne. “Wayne starts talking a little more on our way here,” Claudia said. “I’ll tell him we’re coming a couple days before and a couple of times in the morning and he’s always just very, very happy to be here.”

Tom’s drumming has also brought out the spark in many other’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as well. “A gentleman named Robert, had early stages of Alzheimer’s, didn’t feel as part of the group and felt like that’s not me,” Tom said. “He came and sat off to the side, but once the group found out that he could play the spoons he was accepted and became a part of it. He became almost like our go-to guy.”

At the end of each session Tom passes around a talking stick, allowing each audience member to share something about his or her experience.

“This program has elements of waking people up,” Tom said. “At the end of an hour there’s just like a vibe. Passing around a talking stick, there’s some very, very powerful sharing that’s been done.”

The focus of a lot of Tom’s current work is in the health care field, working in nursing homes, hospitals and health care organizations, providing drum circle/rhythm experiences for staff as well as residents.  For the last two years, he has partnered with the Alzheimer's Association to provide rhythm programs for the professional caregiving community. These opportunities allow staff to learn how to facilitate drum circles and other rhythm-related activities for the residents in their own care communities.  Additionally, Tom has conducted a Drum Circle workshop at the annual Wisconsin Network Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias for the past twelve years. This evening get-together, now a solid tradition at the conference, allows attendees to connect through the power of rhythm.




Alzheimer's Association

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