Rafael Muniz III: His music therapy makes seniors feel youngBy Cristina DC Pastor
“Do you know the capital of the Philippines?” barked activity coach Rafael Muniz III to a hall where more than 40 elderly adults were standing, waiting to sweat it out.
They hollered, “Manila!”
That was Rafael’s signal to turn on the Hotdog hit “Manila” which began slowly, “Maraming beses na kitang nilayasan.” When the song turned snappy, the seniors kicked into motion: a sway of the hips, a shoulder shimmy, some uncoordinated footwork, and a lot of arms stretching.
Music therapy is part of Rafael’s activity for members of the Rockland County’s senior community. These are elderly individuals whose ages range from 70s to 90s, some with dementia conditions, some recovering from surgery, some with a lot of time and work out in Rafael’s class instead of being lonely and staying bored in their homes. Three days a week, this family man from Hackensack, New Jersey travels 30 miles to the Jewish Community Campus (JCC) in West Nyack where he engages the seniors in a lively physical activity inspired by the movements of Tai Chi, Yoga, and Zumba. His music is a mix of genres, fusing hip hop (Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”) with mellow (Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up”) and dance party beats like “Manila” or the “Chicken Dance.”
“I call it Yo-chi-ba,” chuckled Rafael proud of his self-coined portmanteau. “I don’t know how to dance, but I can motivate people to dance.”
“He is just wonderful,” raved Marilyn Montal, 84, a former administrator at NYC Social Services office. This widow takes the bus to attend Rafael’s class three times a week, where she said she feels “alive.”
Rafael works for the Friedwald Adult Day Center in New City, New York as an activity professional. He brings his brand of music therapy to all 15 senior facilities supported by Friedwald Center. Rafael is the only Filipino in this vast network of senior communities across Rockland County.
“They can be anywhere from senior housing, assisted living facilities, adult communities, or nursing homes,” said Blimy Reich, program director of the Friedwald Center. “Rafael’s therapy is unique. It is fun and there is a medical aspect to it.”
Rafael, 54, came to the U.S. in 2002 on a religious visa. He left behind a steady sales and marketing position with an automobile company to join a Christian ministry in Jersey City led by a Filipino bishop. He also left behind a wife and three sons. Through the Association of Christian Evangelists, his assignment was to minister to senior adults.
“For eight years before I was able to get my family, I was involved in the ministry for old people,” he said when interviewed by The FilAm.
Eight years may be a long time, but it did not take that long for Rafael to appreciate the company of older Americans. His rapport with them and his easygoing nature made him a good fit as a recreational assistant in a nursing home. In this role, he introduced the use of music as part of recreational activity. Routine, tedious exercises became fun, enjoyable dancing when music was played. One of the proprietors at Friedwald Center saw how Rafael was able to motivate the seniors to bend, twist, and stretch their limbs as he switched from slow to hip hop to jazz music.
“I am not a dancer, I have no training in dancing,” said Rafael, a Business graduate from a Manila university.
Seeing the effectiveness of his music therapy, he began to watch YouTube for more creative movements. At Friedwald Center rehabilitation facility where medical treatment, counselling, and social recreation are part of a resident’s comprehensive care, Rafael is aware that his therapy must mean more than just seniors having fun. He should make sure it supports their care plans. His 30-minute sessions are relaxed and friendly, nothing too abrupt or strenuous. Students that cannot sustain standing up for 30 minutes may perform the movements sitting down. Like many Filipino professionals working in health care, he treats his students with caring attention and affection.
“He’s a natural,” Blimy said of Rafael. She has seen, she said, how fond the students are of him. Rafael is gratified. He finds fulfillment in a job where his managers and his students appreciate his work.
On Memorial Day, he and his JCC seniors broke into a flash mob at the Palisades Center, drawing applause and cheers from families, friends, and holiday shoppers. The grannies and grandpas were grooving to Sam Smith’s dreamy-paced “Stay with Me,” switching to Bruno Mars’ brisk “Uptown Funk” and some Jewish hora dance music like “Shalom Aleichem.”
A woman regretted missing the flash mob as she recuperated from surgery but promised to return to Rafael’s class once her foot heals completely. “I can’t wait to go back. I need to feel exhilarated again.”