Northeast Portland Neighborhoods

Singing can help stroke patients speak

(Porthaven Medical Center)

(Porthaven Medical Center)

By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News

When Anne Tillinghast and Trace Wiren take ukulele and guitar to a sing-a-long at a health care center, they are doing more than entertaining the residents. They are elevating mood, creating social interaction and, sometimes, encouraging stroke patients to speak again.

The two musicians aren’t therapists, they point out. However, Tillinghast, who was an office manager in the Oregon Stroke Center at Oregon Health & Science University for 13 years, observed therapists and researchers who have studied the parts of the brain related to music and speech. She saw therapists use a technique called melodic intonation to help stroke patients. Essentially, that means encouraging a patient to sing a simple melody and say words along with the tune. People who haven’t been able to speak may “sing” words. By practicing this technique, they help cells around the brain’s damaged speech center begin to take over a new job of talking, said Dr. Wayne Clark, director of the Oregon Stroke Center.

Through brain scans, researchers have found that, as stroke patients try to say words, the brain’s right-side music center seems to suppress activity around the speech center on the opposite side of the brain, Clark said. When a stroke patient hums or sings, the music cells become engaged and are so “distracted” by their own activity that they don’t suppress the speech side of the brain, he said. Over time, Clark said, patients may hum a tune in their heads while speaking. That way, no one else may be aware of how they are regaining speech.

Tillinghast and Wiren, often accompanied by Keith Parkhurst, a drummer, and Sarah Sanderling, a guitar and baritone ukulele player, visit Porthaven Health Care Center, 5330 N.E. Prescott St., on Monday afternoons.
They’re called the Sonic Tonic Music Group. They work with activity directors at other centers, also, said Tillinghast, to bring music programs appealing to residents.

At Porthaven, some residents play rhythm instruments as they sing. The fun activity with other people can ease tension and anxiety, Tillinghast said, and strengthen bonds of friendship within the group. And, of course, the singing promotes vocalization, tongue and lip movement and usually sets toes or fingers to tapping, too, she said.

A 49-year-old resident, who identifies himself only as Wulff, speaks hesitantly since his stroke, but he enjoys the weekly sing-a-long. “It helps me a lot,” he said.

One woman who couldn’t verbalize after her stroke now can sing up to 17 songs, including some the staff didn’t realize she knew, said Jodi Burroughs, the center’s activities director.

“We have a resident now who wants to record (the sing-a-long) so they can watch it and sing through the week,” she said.

Although Sonic Tonic plays for a fee at care centers, the musicians transform into the Backstroke group at 11:30 a.m. Mondays when they gather with volunteers, stroke patients and anyone else who wants to sing at Day Music Center, 5516 S.E. Foster Rd. Those who are able to can contribute toward the $30 room rent, Tillinghast said.

Several stroke patients attend the group regularly, selecting songs from an ever-growing notebook arranged by Wiren, the music director and also a certified activities director. “Country Roads” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” are among the favorites, along with folk and other pop tunes.

A regular at Backstroke is Marlane Venner, 53, who had a stroke 10 years ago but didn’t regain speech until about a year ago when she joined the signing group. A Vancouver, Washington, resident, she often joins the musicians at Porthaven and other gatherings to sing – and speak – as much as possible, she said.

“You can make a lot of progress,” Venner said, speaking slowly while noting her own budding abilities. “I was unable to sing and could not speak at all.”

Tillinghast said losing the ability to speak affects people’s identity and place in society. Musicians, she said, may help people regain a voice after health insurance no longer covers therapy sessions.

In addition, she said, “Having music in facilities would be good for all people.”

Singing and speaking
What: Sonic Tonic Music Group and Backstroke singing group
Why: To elevate mood, create social bonds and encourage stroke patients to speak
Information: Anne Tillinghast, moc.l1398036511iamg@1398036511agnil1398036511lit1398036511

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