Music Therapy at Mount St. Mary Hospital during Covid-19

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The days, weeks, and months at the start of the pandemic felt extra long and quiet. The hustle and bustle of families and friends visiting residents at Mount St. Mary was missing. Volunteers were not on-site helping with programs and activities throughout the day and evening.
And, music therapy was cancelled—no favorite show tunes echoing through the hallways, no Voice in Motion choir practice for residents living with dementia and their family member, and no Full Circle spiritual music therapy sessions in the chapel.

Residents felt isolated and lonely.

Faced with a variety of challenges including many residents’ limited cognition, physical abilities, and familiarity with technology, Mount St. Mary did its best to pivot. A few residents benefited from online music therapy sessions. This medium allowed residents to connect with Allan Slade, one of our music therapists. This was especially effective for a few of the younger residents and especially those interested in song-writing.

In the middle of July, Allan and our other music therapist Marie Slade were back on-site. Like all staff, they always wear a mask and every effort is made to remain 6 feet apart from residents.

Despite the fact they are not allowed to sing, Allan and Marie have adapted the music therapy program to meet the needs of many residents. Gathering in groups is limited to the bubble of residents who already live together. These group sessions increase communication, interaction and a sense of belonging. The group has a familiar structure, uses themes and instrument-playing.

Both Allan and Marie spend a significant amount of time engaging with residents during individual sessions. One-to-one sessions can be transformative, especially for those isolated by their mental or physical health. Residents with physical challenges express themselves through adaptive technology such as the Soundbeam. For those with limited communication abilities, music therapy enables residents to connect through music. Individual sessions are typically offered weekly or as needed for 20-30 minutes.

Music therapy is also very important to residents who are palliative. These individuals experience incredible comfort and solace as they near the end of their life.

The families and friends of residents along with the Resident Care team at Mount St. Mary are grateful for our music therapists and the experiences they provide. Music therapy is an effective way for residents to express and experience their feelings and receive support and comfort. Every day we hear about the impact of music therapy. Here are a few recent stories we would like to share:

Anna* was crying by the phone when Marie, the music therapist arrived. In her late 70’s, Anna lives with a degenerative neurological condition. She thrives in the company of others, but expresses sadness when alone. Her hearing impairment causes social interactions to be strained. With Covid-19, the usual bustle of volunteers, family visitors, and activity programs is hushed and Anna has limited social interactions. Marie brought a music player and headphones and sat with Anna. Marie knew this resident loves upbeat music of the 1950s. The moment Elvis Presley’s voice came through the headphones, it was like a light switch was flicked on. Anna’s emotions switched from desolation to joy. She said “Oh, this was the music we loved when I was a kid!” She continued to reminisce saying, “I had a cool mother and all my friends loved her.” Using a pocket talker, Marie’s voice was amplified so the resident could hear and enjoy a conversation. Anna looked out at the flowers in the garden and said “I gave each of my sons a section of the garden to plant whatever they would like at our home and they loved it.” At the end of the session she said “Thank you so much, those songs were big in my day!”

Emma* is a 97 year old woman living with Alzheimers, cancer, anxiety and depression. When Marie arrived for their visit, Emma was sitting by herself in the dark with her curtains drawn. Emma said “I was just thinking about you.” Knowing Emma was a piano and an accordion player, the therapist suggested they play some music together. The resident said “If I can hear the melody in my head I can play it!” Together they played folk and classical melodies and chords taking turns beginning a song. The resident played most notes successfully, and laughed when she made mistakes. Emma said “It’s so much more interesting to play with other instruments. Some of Emma’s fellow residents gathered nearby in their wheelchairs to listen. They expressed admiration and appreciation for her musical gifts. Emma said “We should do this more often, if we do it often we get better and better!”

Lucy*, a woman in her 40s, lives with paraplegia. She asked Marie to play her a recording of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven.” Lucy moved her hands and used sign language to convey the message of the song. Lucy said, “I taught myself how to use sign language so I could talk to my friend who was deaf. Later I taught sign language to others.” She said “I love that song because it reminds me of my family members who have died, and it reminds me that they are right here listening to me.” The last song Marie and Lucy listened to was a Sarah McLachlan song, “Angel.” Lucy expressively moved her hands while looking up and making flying motions. Lucy said “It’s beautiful.”

*Names changed to protect residents’ privacy

The Music Therapy program at Mount St. Mary Hospital is funded entirely through donations from individuals, corporations, foundations, as well as the investment income earned from the Sisters of St. Ann Legacy Fund.

During the pandemic, fundraising is extra challenging. At the same time, the need for music therapy is increasing. With music therapy, anxiety and the physical effects of stress are reduced. In addition, music therapy reduces depression and other symptoms in the elderly and improves self expression.
Mount St. Mary Hospital is incredibly grateful to the Victoria Foundation and Helen May Noxon Fund for a $40,000 Community Recovery Program grant. This incredible gift guarantees Mount St. Mary’s ability to continue offering an exemplary music therapy program in 2020/21.