Last month, in the middle of a typical cold, dark January, we had a sunny day. That’s a noteworthy event in mid-Michigan.
The mood in the assisted living facility I visited that afternoon matched the weather: bright and happy. Neither residents nor staff could stop talking about the glorious sunshine.
When I entered the big common area, a few people sat by the fireplace playing checkers. Others participated in a chair exercise class, tossing a big fitness ball back and forth. Mouth-watering aromas wafted from the nearby kitchen, where Chef LeRoy turned out homestyle meals everyone looked forward to.
Amidst all this, on a paisley couch in front of a big window, sunshine pouring in, Anna lay sleeping. A cream-colored electric blanket covered her, chin to toes.
I headed to the piano in the corner. When it was time for lunch, an aide gently roused Anna, suggesting she come to the table to eat. “I’m too tired,” she mumbled, and drifted off again. “That’s not like her,” I overheard someone say. The staff nurse came to have a look. Anna didn’t seem to be in any pain. Some low conversation among staff followed, too quiet for me to hear.
So there I sat. To my right, 20 people enjoyed their meal, listening to the piano music, occasionally singing. And to my left… Well, I wondered if Anna might be dying.
I recently read Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage by Jennifer L. Hollis (Praeger, 2010). Hollis is a music thanatologist, a career I’d never heard of before coming across her book. She and other practitioners in this field, founded in the 1970s, play the harp and sing at the bedside of the actively dying. These “music vigils” aim to soothe patients and their families by creating a peaceful atmosphere for saying goodbye.
When I perform for my elderly audiences, I play songs they know from their younger days. Music thanatologists like Hollis do just the opposite. They select pieces that the hospice patient would not recognize. Why? As Kieran Schnabel explains: “… We generally use unfamiliar music … We’re offering support without asking the person something in return. We don’t necessarily want to grab their attention. It isn’t a performance.”
I think that the piano could produce the same calming effect during a music vigil that a harp does. Contemporary pieces by pianist Lorie Line would be good choices. She favors harp-like arpeggios, in which the notes of a chord are played one after the other, rather than at the same time. Here’s one of her original compositions, “Walking with You”:
I don’t know if Anna died that sunny January afternoon. But if she did, she died warm and safe and comfortable, among people who cared for her with great kindness. And perhaps my music was one of the last things she heard. Balm for her soul, I hope.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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