The Joy of Music Therapy - Brian's Journey
Posted by Beth Briggs, Music Therapist
Last December I had the pleasure of visiting a retired artist and teacher. His advanced prostate cancer left him with pain throughout his body, and his bladder spasms and infections had helped to slowly cease his social life. He was referred to music therapy services to elevate his mood and lessen social isolation, to promote reminiscence, story-sharing, and life review, and to refocus him away from feelings of pain and discomfort. As with all clients who I see for music therapy, I have the wonderful challenge of finding how music interventions can assist in easing identified symptoms. Knowing that the brain can only take in so much information at once, using Brian’s* preferred music held his attention and engaged him in enjoyable and meaningful moments, pulling his focus away from his pain. The perception of his pain and discomfort lessened as we sang together and talked about the music he loved throughout his life.
During our first visit Brian said he played the guitar in college and enjoyed folk and bluegrass music. He joked that he didn’t know anyone else who liked that music, but as I played and sang bluegrass songs for him he told me, “You make my day, my week, my year!” In following visits Brian would tell me, “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done.” These early visits focused on pain management and joyful, meaningful engagement for this lonely man who had already lost his hobbies, friends, and many abilities. He looked forward to sharing music and stories, and it was a pleasure providing moments of fun, creativity, beauty and levity for this ailing gentleman.
In the new year, Brian’s memory became foggier. He forgot having ever heard some of the songs we had sung together, or old favorites of his that I learned to play for him. With his cognitive decline, less reminiscence and life review were used. Rather, music therapy visits focused on in-the-moment connections and finding bluegrass music that supported and honored him. Although the music was becoming unfamiliar to him, his face would still light up when hearing pleasing melodies. I brought to him music that talked of hope, happiness, love, and kindness. He especially liked listening to ‘On the Wings of a Dove’ and ‘Angel Band,’ and got a kick out of Bill Monroe’s ‘Y’all Come’.
By February Brian still did not recognize the music he once loved, but enjoyed talking about and deconstructing the culture, musicality, and elements that go into creating these genres of song. He repeated himself more and more and often had trouble finding to right words to complete his thoughts. He said his ideas would, “zoom away,” though the message and beauty of music continued to reach through his confusion.
His rapid decline left him bedbound, sleeping most of the time and largely unresponsive by the end of the month. I could no longer facilitate music history or music appreciation-focused conversations that he so enjoyed, or pick Brian’s brain about his feelings and affinity for a culture and music so different than our Northshore surroundings. Rather, I modified his favorite bluegrass songs and sang at his bedside. I was mindful not only of song choice, but of tempo, volume, articulation, and meter, to best match and support his breath and energy as he laid with little to no response. I tailored his upbeat favorites into a relaxing, holding space, while he rested and toed the line between this world and the next. It was a privilege to continue providing support by playing Brian’s preferred music, though in a new way, during our last encounter. Music therapy sessions brought happiness, life, meaningful time, and hopefully peace to this man whose body could no longer support him.
Brian transferred to one of JourneyCare’s Care Centers the next day, where he continued to decline. He peacefully passed away one week later. I will never forget the lessons Brian taught me, and am thankful to be in a profession and with an organization that so values our patients.
*Note – names have been changed.
JourneyCare music therapists use a range of musical techniques to help hospice patients relax, express feelings and recall significant experiences from their lives. Learn more at journeycare.org/music-care-services.