Living with Dying: Music can heal and lift your spirits

Editor’s note: This column is provided by the End of Life Care Partnership that has been operating here in Addison County for eight years. Its mission is “to create a framework for our organizations to collaborate on our common goal of providing education about dying, death and options for care.”
This column will work if we get questions from you, our readers.
We want to hear from you, what is on your mind and heart regarding this challenging issue that each of us will need to address in our lives? Send your questions to LivingandDyingQuestions@gmail. com.
A question submitted by a community member will be featured in our next column in the Oct. 16 edition, so watch for the conversation bubble!
• • • • •
“Where words fail, music speaks.”
– Hans Christian Andersen
A phenomenon witnessed, and experienced, by many who are touched by the dying process is the power of music. This month’s Living with Dying column is devoted to our shared value and commitment to bring comfort and pleasure through music to all involved — patients, family members, friends, caregivers and volunteers.
Have you ever listened to a piece of music and it lifted your spirits? Or heard a melody that brought tears because it brought back fond memories? Those are just a few ways music can aid the body in the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual release it goes through at the end of life — or at any time! As someone who plays the harp on the Porter Medical Center campus, I’ve often witnessed the power of music. I have played “The Old Rugged Cross” as a life-long Baptist took their final breath, and Scottish tunes for someone with no specific religious beliefs simply because it brought them joy and pleasure. Whether you are a child or 101 years old, whether you like country or jazz or classical, rock or hip hop or the blues, music has much to offer you.
It’s one of my great joys at Porter to arrange to have people play music or sing for you, or make you a personalized playlist of your favorite music. Particularly at the end of life, there is nothing more beautiful than someone peacefully drifting away to the tunes they loved the best, surrounded by the people they’ve loved the best.
Matthew Wollam-Berens, Porter Hospital/Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing, chaplain and harpist
Addison Respite Care Home (ARCH) recently received a generous grant from the Middlebury Rotary Club to participate in the “Music and Memory Program,” a project developed by Dan Cohen and chronicled in the documentary “Alive Inside.” (available at the Hospice Volunteer Services (HVS) Library and at musicandmemory.org) Cohen demonstrated — through the use of technology — the power of music to reach those who are not able to communicate, e.g., living with dementia. By downloading a personal “playlist” (songs and music that have special meaning to the listener) onto an iPod, and using headphones, participants were able to experience pleasure and reconnect to their environment.
Because many people exhibit memory challenges, as well as isolation, at the end of life, ARCH realized this could be a valuable resource to increase the quality of life for those dying in an ARCH room. Already a certified member of the Music and Memory national organization, Helen Porter enthusiastically partnered with ARCH on the purchase and implementation of additional iPods for ARCH rooms at Helen Porter and the Estuary at Porter Hospital. HVS has joined this opportunity to share the gift of music, by piloting the program not only with patients they visit at Helen Porter, but also with patients dying at home.
Laurie Borden, ARCH Community Coordinator
A dozen years ago, a small group of local singers, and harp therapist Margie Bekoff began exploring how we might bring music to those living with terminal illness. Within a year, Wellspring Hospice Singers began singing at patient bedsides and community care facilities, often in memory care settings. Unlike performance singing where there is a border between performers and audience, hospice singing is about connectedness. We sing in relationship with the patient, family members and others in the room, and with each other.
Music has a profound effect on those who listen to and those who create it. For those at the end of life, music can
•  Invite a deep sense of relaxation and inner calm
•  Reduce pain and promote sleep
•  Decrease anxiety and fearfulness
•  Promote a sense of community and connectedness
•  Encourage reflection, meditation, spiritual contemplation
•  Kindle memories and life review
•  Stimulate communication
•  Provide diversion and pleasure
•  Express a broad range of feelings
•  Convey personal and cultural identity
Wellspring Singers are humbled by the privilege of entering the space of those who are at the end of their lives — whether we come to sing oldies in the spirit of shared pleasure and life-review, or sing quiet, reflective songs for someone who is actively dying. In addition, Margie Bekoff plays a variety of harp music, with singers and on her own.
To learn more about Wellspring, and becoming a singer, contact Priscilla Baker at Hospice Volunteer Services, 388-4111, [email protected].
Priscilla Baker, Wellspring coordinator
The next “Living with Dying” public event will be “Stories from the Hearth” at American Flatbread restaurant in Middlebury on Sunday evening, Nov. 12.

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