Carrying a tune: Retired music teacher brings music to Alzheimer’s residents

Virginia Derry taught music for 26 years in four different states. From kindergarteners to high school seniors, nearly every age of student has come through her musical tutelage.

Today, the 90-year-old Parkway Place resident is teaching a new audience: Alzheimer’s and dementia residents at The Harbor, Parkway Place’s memory care assisted living program.

“I do it like I did at school,” said Derry. “I ask if they know choreography, or what a solo is. I teach them, and I tell them if they can’t remember the words to just sing ‘La la la’ or hum along.”

Since Derry moved to Parkway Place in March, she’s visited The Harbor four times to lead residents in familiar hymns, pop songs and holiday classics. Her bright eyes and encouraging spirit nudge residents to sing along, tap their tows or just smile at the gaiety.

“I’ve been through Alzheimer’s three times, with my mother-in-law, my sister and my husband, so I kind of know what to expect,” Derry said. “With them, I’ve just got to slow down what I’m doing with the songs. But they’re doing great. They’ve got some voices!’

Music is all Derry has ever known. Her late husband was also a musician and played both the violin and trombone. The two volunteered with their church to lead vesper services for residents in nursing homes or retirement communities nearly every Sunday in each town they lived. 

“In my day, there weren’t that many openings for women,” said Derry. “You could be a teacher or a nurse or work in the factories or be a secretary. I didn’t have that much talent, but I loved music and stuck with it.”

While working with senior adults is a new experience for the veteran teacher, Derry, who now has eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, finds joy in leading music no matter her audience.

“This is my life. And it’s my calling, to work with people in music.”

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