Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy

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
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Death, Hospice, Music and emotion, Volunteering and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy

  1. Judie says:

    Margaret always wore headphones while laying in bed watching TV at her group home. She grew very attached to them wearing them even when the TV was turned off. When she was nearing the end, Ross played a classical music station for her. It had a calming effect.

  2. Jessa says:

    That’s very interesting. Remember Mimi would try to sing in her last week?

    • She always loved to sing and had a good alto voice, which got deeper as she aged, but more ragged, too, from smoking. She told me that she had a solo part in “O Holy Night” once at school.

  3. Aunt Evie says:

    When your uncle Bud died on the 11th after only two days in the memory care facility, they hadn’t been successful in hooking up the TV we had brought, so I asked if they had a radio we could use. I’m sure the music we played was much more comforting to him, since he was beyond watching TV.
    There was a lovely grand piano in the gathering room for the assisted living residents, and I’m wondering if they are fortunate enough to have a volunteer pianist as talented and thoughtful as you are!

    • I’m sure that the radio music helped comfort Bud. But the real gift you gave him was your loving presence, not just in his final days but throughout his illness. With that, he could die peacefully, which is the best we can all hope for, I think.

      Thank you for your kind words about my volunteering. You have always been one of my biggest supporters!

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