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Billings musician gives memory care patients chance to relive life through music

'For that hour that he’s there playing for them they’re good, they’re whole, they are themselves'
Posted at 7:42 PM, Dec 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-06 11:08:19-05

BILLINGS — Tom Blankenship, a Navy veteran, former FBI investigator, and former Stillwater County sheriff, is adding another accolade to his array of life achievements as a musician for memory care facilities (homes to patients living with Alzheimer's and dementia) around Billings.

“They’re never gonna remember your name, but they’re always gonna remember how you make them feel," said Bridget Whitman, the life enrichment coordinator and friend of Blankenships at MorningStar of Billings, a senior-living facility Blankenship frequents as talent.

Music and playing the piano has been a part of Blankenship's life since he was seven years old. It was so significant that the performer said it saved his life during the Vietnam War when he was kept away from combat for intelligence purposes.

"Well, what I was doing was intercepting Morse Code; well, that was my ear for music. I thought everybody could do that," said Blankenship as he reflected on his time in the Navy.

He initially committed to the Navy, he said, as an act of teenage rebellion against his parents. The experience, according to Blankenship, inevitably matured him to a point where he felt could succeed in college; the academic experience was paid for by the GI Bill and his time as a musician around Billings.

Blankenship now spends his time working alongside his drummer, John Cooke, curating a set of songs from the 1930s to the '70s that he has titled "Memories Through Music".

"They are very grateful to have time away from the facility in their minds … they’re back in a happier time and happier place," said Cooke as he reflected on the duo's memory care work.

Blankenship, whom Whitman describes as a passionate performer, said the experience is magical, and he feels he receives 10 times the positive feeling he gives in return for his work.

“She looks at me, eyeball to eyeball and says, ‘Tom, you don’t understand. When you play that music, you make me feel like I’m 17 years old again,' … I had tears in my eyes," said Blankenship as he reflected on an encounter he had with a memory care patient.