Just as no two snowflakes are ever the same, Therapeutic Music can touch each person in unique ways. Typically offered to help patients manage pain or anxiety, Therapeutic Music can create environments where a particular piece of music played a certain way creates those amazing experiences that extend well beyond our understanding of the human body and the miracle of life.
Recently, I was asked to play for an elderly hospice patient named Sarah, who was suffering from end-stage Alzheimer’s. I first met Sarah in 2013 at an Assisted Living Facility and had since played for her several times. Early on, Sarah asked me to play songs that her father used to play. She was particularly fond of old ballads and hymns. As Sarah’s disease progressed, those familiar songs often ‘re-connected’ her with memories from childhood and stories about her family. When her son, Stephen, called me last week, I learned that Sarah had been un-responsive for nearly two weeks. He told me that even with comfort medications given by her hospice nurse, his mom was still struggling through extended seasons of agitation. Knowing how his mom loved music, he hoped that my music might comfort her in her final hours.
It was mid-morning when I arrived at Sarah’s room and realized that she would soon pass away. In her weakened condition, Sarah was unable to keep her airway open. Her breaths were rapid and irregular and I wondered how long her body would continue fighting for air. As I began to play slow and non-rhythmic improvisations, I watched for changes in her condition. Stephen, sitting at his mother’s bedside, held her hand and softly whispered to her. Within minutes, Sarah’s breathing relaxed. Instead of struggling with apnea, her respirations slowed with deep, long breaths. The apnea disappeared in less than 20 minutes.
As Sarah relaxed, I recalled a few of the songs that I had played for her during our previous sessions. I wondered whether she might benefit from hearing a ‘therapeutic’ version of a hymn that she always requested. Whether or not to play familiar music for a dying patient often presents a challenging dilemma. Familiar music can sometimes stimulate or agitate a patient. Patients can also ‘engage’ with the music, which can prolong the suffering and the delay the inevitable. But I have also experienced occasions when a beloved song transformed a season of sorrow into a sacred moment that comforted the patient and gave the family memories that they will treasure forever.
Sarah once told me that her favorite hymn was ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and how hearing this song reminded her of her daddy playing his guitar and singing to her. With this in mind, I felt led to play a simple arrangement of this hymn. Stephen was still close by, holding his mother’s hand; his face mere inches from hers. Only 30 seconds into the song, Sarah’s eyes fluttered open as she turned her head toward her son. There was instant recognition and a connection between mother and son. No words were exchanged, for everything that needed to be said had already been shared. Sarah even managed a tiny smile. Then, she closed her eyes. I played a few more minutes to ensure that Sarah was still resting comfortably. After a few more moments, I thanked Stephen for the opportunity to serve his mother and family, shared my condolences and left. Later that evening, I received word that Sarah had passed.
I am grateful to have shared those precious moments with Stephen and Sarah and for the privilege of being able to provide Therapeutic Music to those who suffer. My prayer is that one day, everyone will have access to end of life care with Therapeutic Music. If you would like more information or are interested in helping us provide Therapeutic Music to more patients, go to www.stringsofmercy.org to find out how you can help!
*Names have been changed to protect identities and comply with HIPAA Guidelines