Musical Touch Tunes Seem to Offer Therapeutic Benefit for Patients
BY SARAH BROWN
Music legend Billy Joel once said, "I think music in itself is healing. It's an explosive expression of humanity. It's something we are all touched by."
Archie Stevens, chaplain for Liberty Home Care in Southern Pines, wholeheartedly agrees.
While performing his daily chaplain duties, Stevens employs a touch of this "explosive expression of humanity" as a therapeutic tool for hospice and nursing home patients in the Moore County area.
"Something about gospel hymns strikes a note of family, of friends, and of worshipping together for them," he says.
Although the idea of music as therapy has been explored nationwide over the past few years, Stevens' program began by accident.
A visit to a patient in late December 2008 turned into a Christmas carol sing-along, and after her remarkable response to the music, Stevens - a lifelong guitar player - began to bring his guitar more often when visiting her.
"I played some gospel songs I knew, and she was singing, laughing, remembering," he recalls.
From there, he began playing regularly during his individual sessions with hospice patients. He also started traveling to local nursing homes, where he had patients, leading them in a 30- to 45-minute sing-along of gospel hymns.
He, along with his band, 2d Childhood, now goes to three nursing homes a month and holds a program. The music selection reflects a distant but profound past for the patients.
"For this age group, much of their community setting was centered around being in church," he says. "Gospel music brings them to that warm, comfortable place filled with remembrances of earlier times, of communal worship."
Recently Stevens has begun to mix music genres for the programs, incorporating bluegrass and country into his repertoire.
No doubt a little laughter never hurt anybody, and Stevens sees occasional comic relief as an integral part of the music therapy. Funny patient favorites include the folk tunes "I Just Don't Look Good Naked Anymore!" and "Badger in the Outhouse."
"We try to do things that make them laugh," he says. "One time, a program was just ending, and a lady came up to me and said incredulously, 'But you've gotta do the naked song!' It's important to remember that this is a time of humor for patients, too."
From time to time Stevens also relates stories from his childhood, including a comical one detailing an outhouse incident at an aunt's house when he was younger.
"They can understand and laugh about it because that was part of their growing up," he says. "These kinds of things excite me about what I do. These good responses, especially in times when I wonder, 'Am I doing anything effectively?' give me the drive to continue with the program.
"But music seems to trigger a memory. It sparks something deep within."
It has clearly sparked something with patient Gerushia Wrencher, of Carthage.
"She starts singing with him, and it brings back songs to her that she's forgotten about," says her daughter, Jackie Wrencher. "She still forgets a lot, but the therapy has really opened her up."
Wrencher mentions one transitional moment in particular that occurred after her mother began music therapy.
"My mom hadn't read the Bible since she became sick," she remembers. "But one day she decided she wanted the Bible, so I brought it to her. She read for a long time. It (The music) brings her to life."
For many of Stevens' patients, particularly the ones with dementia, it can be difficult to gauge what effect - if any - the music therapy is having.
"We all like to be affirmed in what we're trying to do," he notes. "But you never know how much is getting through if they're no longer communicating. Sometimes they don't visibly respond at all."
"I had one patient who could sing harmony with me. He never missed a beat," Stevens says. "Music had been and still was a big part of his life. But now, although he can remember some of the words, he can't sing the harmony anymore. That's when you know they're declining, when they start finding it difficult to communicate."
Stevens says situations like these, when their responses to the music aren't what they used to be, are "the hard points" of his work.
"But you know how much the music meant to them, so you try to keep it as part of their lives regardless," he says.
Powerful prayer supplements the therapeutic music experience during each patient visit that Stevens makes. He emphasizes that, since many patients are no longer able to attend church each Sunday, they need others' support, people to help steer them on their respective spiritual journeys.
"For those not able to worship in a corporate or individual setting, we need to take time to read scriptures, pray with them, and sing with them," he says.
He says he has one patient, a lady, who doesn't hear well. Whenever he's preparing to leave, he makes a prayer sign with his hands, asking her if she wants to pray.
"She says, 'Oh, yes please!' Prayers have been and still are a part of her spiritual journey. They have a very real power for her," he says.
One of the most important aspects of his work as chaplain is being flexible. He never forces patients into anything, and he has to be prepared for however the patient might be feeling that particular day.
"Some (patients) you have to pull in, and sometimes it just doesn't happen," he says. "So I never go with an agenda. Some days they don't want to sing, they just want to talk. And that's fine."
"It's what I call the 'ministry of presence,'" he adds. "It's not what you say but the fact that you're there."
Stevens has only one person who helps him with the program at the moment, a woman who plays piano and uses music with one of Stevens' patients.
This patient, a former piano player himself, sometimes offers no response to the music she plays him. But during one recent session, the woman remembered a hymn that had only five notes, and she helped him play the hymn.
"The patient used these notes to capture a good memory," Stevens says. "Once music is a part of your being, it never leaves."
Although he'd love the program to expand and reach more patients with music and involve more nursing homes, Stevens says it's just not feasible right now because of the lack of musically-oriented volunteers. Anyone desiring to help with music or any other volunteer services would be welcome additions to the volunteer program with Liberty Hospice, he says.
"For those who have an interest in music and in visiting with these people, the rewards are tremendous," he says. "Music truly touches the soul. That's what makes it unique."
Contact Sarah Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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