Is there a song that takes you back to a specific moment in your life? Have you bonded with someone over a shared love of a band? Does listening to music increase your attention or focus when you’re doing something else? Music is powerful and for many of us, we can answer yes to some or all of those questions.

Research has shown there are many benefits to including music in our lives. For seniors especially, pleasing melodies can deliver even more benefits for physical and mental health, memory, and important social connections. For those in assisted living, music may provide lessening of pain and discomfort without the use of medicines, improved ability to remember recent events, positive changes in mood, and an increased sense of self-sufficiency.

Recently, Elizabeth Church Campus has welcomed two new staff members specifically focused on increasing music into activity opportunities for our residents. Kathy Micha, Activities Director, is thrilled to have these two exceptional individuals working with her and our seniors. Welcome to UMH, Tori Gac and Heather Hommel!

Tori Gac is a board-certified music therapist and recently moved back home to the Southern Tier. After she received her music therapy education at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., she lived in New Zealand for three years, facilitating individual and group music therapy sessions for clients of all ages.

Since starting as an activity leader in September, she has been eager to make music more accessible for residents during this difficult time. At Elizabeth Church Manor, she provides music by visiting residents individually room to room. On the units where small groups are allowed, she facilitates instrumental music and music listening activities for the residents. During this time where it is difficult to find connection due to restrictions in place to prevent the virus, safely implemented live music is even more meaningful and important for the residents.

At St. Louise Manor, she recently began leading music appreciation groups, such as “Composer of the Week”, where they learn about the life of the composer and listen to their well-known musical works. Residents are able to connect, socialize, and simply reminisce while listening to their favorite music. According to Anna F., resident and participant, “Composer of the Week is one of the most enjoyable activities I have been to recently. It is for anyone who likes music. One of the musicians we listen to is bound to be your favorite!” In the future, Tori wishes to expand on small group ensembles such as starting back up the hand-bell choir and drum ensembles. Even during a pandemic, these instrumental and music listening activities can be safely implemented with precautions and social distancing in place.

Tori is excited to expand and develop the music programs at both Elizabeth Church Manor and St. Louise Manor that will impact the residents’ daily lives in a positive way and improve their quality of life.

Heather Hommel is currently a full-time activities leader at Elizabeth Church Manor. She started working in activities during an internship in high school about five years ago. In the fall of 2016, she moved to Rochester, NY to study music therapy at Nazareth College. Every summer when she came home to visit her parents in Binghamton, she continued to work per diem in the activities departments of various long-term care facilities in the area. She finally found her way to Elizabeth Church Manor in the summer of 2018 when her long-time supervisor, Kathy Micha, began working at ECM as the activities director. Music therapists require a 4-year degree and 1200 hours of training in a clinical internship to become board-certified professionals. Heather finished her academic coursework in the spring of 2020 and is currently on a hiatus from school until her own clinical internship begins in February 2021 at Levine Music in Washington, D.C.

Due to the isolating effects of COVID-19, the many benefits of musical engagement are more important than ever for older adults. While she cannot practice music therapy quite yet, Heather consistently relies on the principles and methods that she has learned thus far in her professional training to engage the residents at ECM and SLM with musical activities. Heather currently offers 1:1 music visits with residents in order to provide opportunities for social engagement and reminiscing, or simply to provide live musical entertainment. Because she spends so much of her time playing music for the residents as of late, she is recognized by many residents as “the girl that plays the guitar.” Heather also recently began facilitating a socially distanced exercise program with Tori at St. Louise Manor called “Music in Motion” in which they use music as a motivator to help keep the residents active.