GPC Professor Helps Alzheimer's Patients Remember Through Music

Contact: Beverly James
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Author: Beverly James

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Michael McClary tightens his necktie with the graphic of a trumpet on it, loads up his wind instruments and gathers the extra mouth pieces. For this performance, he wants to make sure that he provides the most entertainment possible.

Entering the residential facility, McClary, an assistant professor of music at Georgia Perimeter College Dunwoody Campus, is greeted by an audience whose memories have all but slipped away. Still, their attachment to music is holding on strong.

McClary started visiting nursing homes 15 years ago, when his father, Kenneth McClary, was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “I became interested in helping him but also extending the visits to other residential centers for patients with Alzheimer’s,” McClary says. “I grabbed the Yellow Pages and started calling homes to offer my services. I saw a need for community involvement with these patients, and that’s when I took it on in earnest.”

The music professor brings along two categories of instruments: the functional performance group that any artist would take onstage, including a flugel horn, trumpets and a piccolo; and his “gee whiz” instruments that never fail to get attention. This includes a copy of an Egyptian temple trumpet, a shofar (a ram’s horn used in Hebrew liturgy), a conch shell trumpet and a nine-foot-long rubber garden hose. “I stick a mouth piece in and do all kinds of crazy stuff with it,” he explains.

The patients love the show, says Robin Dill, director of Grace Arbor Alzheimer’s Center in Lawrenceville. She believes that the show resonates with dementia patients because it taps into their earliest experiences.

“The theory of retrogenesis says that the memories that go into our brains early in life are the last to leave. Music fits that category,” Dill explains. “When folks are stimulated with music, it brings out memories that might not be brought out with spoken word or visually. When Mike comes and he plays, it transforms them.  The music takes them to another time and place, gives them great joy.”

In addition, McClary and the patients connect on a deeper level, Dill says. “He brings the unique perspective that his dad had Alzheimer’s. So, there is not that typical fear of talking to someone with dementia,” she says. “He chats them up, makes them feel comfortable.”

McClary tells stories along with the history of each instrument. Patients are transformed as they take turns handling the horns and the mouthpieces. Most importantly, they feel respected by a peer.

“We have retired academic deans, doctors and Navy officers who are battling dementia,” Dill says. “Yet, Mike never speaks down to them. He is one professional addressing another professional, and they appreciate that. It is such a gift at such a difficult time in their lives.”

McClary believes what he does is just an extension of his love of music. He began playing the trumpet at age 11 and never put it down. He has played with numerous orchestras and symphonies, including the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, Fort Worth and Dallas symphonies, the Savannah and Augusta symphonies and the Atlanta Pops.

McClary says he enjoys sharing his love with others who may have lost their ability to smile.

“As Alzheimer’s patients progress in the disease, they lose voluntary muscle control; one of first to go is facial muscle, the ability to smile, frown and even speak,” he says. “I look for smiles, animated eyes, and, if don’t get them, I’ll go in the audience and present a horn, let them hold it.

“I’m looking to connect so I can spark an interest in them. It brings 45 minutes to an hour of enjoyment into their lives. It’s very much a pleasure for them. If I achieve that, then I think I’ve done my job.”

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Georgia Perimeter College, the third largest institution of the University System of Georgia, serves approximately 27,000 students through four campuses and several sites in metro Atlanta. For additional information, visit