Music Therapist Provides Comfort to Those Navigating Life’s Final Passage

January 3, 2020

DALLAS–Music is something many of us can relate to—it helps us reminisce, express ourselves, and it can provide comfort and a much-needed distraction. For these reasons and more, music therapy is an integral piece for those navigating life’s final passage and for their grieving family members.

Jennefer Dixon is a music therapist for Faith Presbyterian Hospice (FPH), and she witnesses the benefits of music therapy every day. She visits patients in their homes Monday through Friday, patients at the T. Boone Pickens Hospice and Palliative Care Center on Wednesdays, and she provides the music during Faith Kids and Camp Faith. Each situation is unique, and her techniques vary to accommodate the needs of patients and/or loved ones.

“Music therapy is the use of music and musical activities to care for patients and their families who are experiencing physical or emotional setbacks,” said Dixon. “I visit many of my patients in their homes. One patient really enjoys when I play older songs like ‘Clementine’ and ‘Home on the Range’ because her husband used to sing them to her, and they would sing them in the car with their kids when traveling on family road trips. The songs help her reminisce and recall happy moments she shared with her family. Another woman is a retired music teacher who sang in the opera. She lost her speech and ability to communicate—but listening to music still brings her a lot of joy. She lights up when I come to visit, and I’ve noticed certain songs like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ really enhance her mood.”

When Dixon visits patients at the Pickens Center, she is more self-aware because the patients are often very close to the end of life with many family members around. Understanding they are letting her into a very emotional space, she speaks to loved ones and caregivers to determine what needs she can fill with music—such as providing a distraction from pain, easing anxiety, increasing joy or helping with expression. Sometimes families want her to play their loved one’s favorite songs, other times they want religious music or songs that bring back special memories. On occasion, a patient passes in the midst of the music therapy session. Dixon recalls a time when a woman took her last breath as she played “Amazing Grace” and her family sang to her.

“Music therapy is highly important for grieving loved ones too,” said Dixon. “One time, I entered the home of a family with a young father who was sick with cancer. The wife was very stoic, attending to his needs, as well as those of their children and grandchildren. She was wearing herself out trying to do everything on her own and be a rock for so many people. She requested that I play hymns, and when I started to play, she started sobbing and letting out all the emotions she had kept bottled up inside. At the end of the session she came up and thanked me teary eyed with a hug. Music can provide a safe space in which people can communicate very difficult feelings. Other instances where I’ve used music therapy is when working with grieving children who attend Faith Kids and Camp Faith.”

Faith Kids is held during the evening of the second Thursday of every month. These monthly support groups help children better understand the grieving process, encouraging them to share their unique experience of loss and to find comfort and healing in remembering and honoring their loved ones. Offered in the months of August and December, Camp Faith is a day camp that allows children, grandchildren and their surviving parents and grandparents to express their grief in a safe, secure, creative environment, and to develop creative ways to heal after the loss of a loved one.

“Kids are not always as verbal as adults.  They also do not want to stand out or be different,” said Valerie Sanchez, director of bereavement of Faith Presbyterian Hospice. “With music, we can ask about songs and relate through expression. Music is a therapeutic intervention that helps them normalize what is happening in terms of grief response, validate their feelings and create connections that show them they are not alone. It showcases that we all have these feelings, they are not weird, and it is okay to cry. Sometimes Jennefer will use the music to spur discussions about feelings, and other times she will use instruments so participants can express themselves by playing items like the thunder drum or bells.”

During a previous Faith Kids, participants wrote a song together based on the connection of not being alone in what they were going through or what they were feeling. The same techniques work for adults too. Another time, Sanchez witnessed a music therapy session with a man who was generally unresponsive and could not express himself. When the therapist handed him a drum, she tapped a beat and he responded with the same beat on his drum. Eventually his wife joined in and everyone took turns leading the rhythm of the drum. The wife said it was the most connected she felt with her husband in a long time.

“Music provides a way for people to connect using just a few words or even without words,” said Sanchez. “It is a part of many cultures, and it is a universal art in our lives. We use music to create bridges between people. When integrated with other therapies, such as massage therapy, it can create a really tranquil experience for the patient as well. Our goal at Faith is to help this transition become less about loss and more about comfort, enrichment and love.”

Faith Presbyterian Hospice, a Forefront Living entity, is the largest nonprofit hospice in Dallas and provides faith-based programs and services to support the wishes of patients and ensure a meaningful end-of-life journey. By integrating therapies, Faith Presbyterian Hospice provides care that improves patients’ quality of life while easing pain and addressing symptoms, allowing them to live the remainder of their lives as fully and comfortably as possible. Faith Presbyterian Hospice is nationally recognized for its innovative programs including Faithful Wishes, a program that grants personal requests to make dreams come true; Faithful Presence, providing patients and their families with recorded messages from their loved ones; and Faithful Paws, a program bringing comfort to patients through the companionship of certified animals.

Forefront Living, located in Dallas, is a faith-based nonprofit organization comprised of a U.S. News & World Report-recognized continuing care retirement community (CCRC), Presbyterian Village North; the leading hospice services of Faith Presbyterian Hospice; and its newest addition, the T. Boone Pickens Hospice and Palliative Care Center. Founded in 2008 as Presbyterian Communities and Services, the organization has recently rebranded itself as Forefront Living, though ownership remains the same.

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