« BBC Singers Appoint David Hill Chief Conductor | Main | Doughnuts and God »

February 7, 2007

Threshold Choir comforts the dying with gift of songs

The Beachcomber (WA)

On a recent afternoon at the Vashon Community Care Center, the long pink curtains in one room were pulled closed, filtering out the last of the day’s light. A woman, nearing the end of her life, lay resting on her bed with her eyes closed. Five women came into her room, seated themselves around her, talked quietly to her and began to sing.

“Down in the valley, valley so low,” they sang, a cappella, as they always do when gathered around someone they are singing for.

Roses love sunshine, violets love dew

Angels in heaven know I love you

Know I love you, dear,

Know I love you.

After the group finished with their closing song, the woman, in her early 80s with advanced dementia, opened her eyes. “That was lovely,” she said.

The singers are part of the Vashon Threshold Choir, an all-woman group that sings at the bedsides of people nearing the end of life. The choir, made up of a core group of about a dozen women, sing at a bedside at least once a week, easing someone’s passing from life. “For someone who is vulnerable or in pain or knows they are dying, to have people who are complete strangers come and sing, it gives them the feeling they are connected to the human community, ... that they are not isolated or forgotten,” said Melissa Frykman-Thieme, one of the group’s leaders.

Two of the women sang for David Keating three times in the last days of his life last summer. David had been part of the hospice program for a year when his health took a turn for the worse last summer. He, his wife Heron Keating and the people with hospice knew his time was drawing to a close. Two members of the choir came to the Keatings’ home and sang three times before he died. David was in bed, and Heron, his wife of 64 years, lay next to him while the women stood at the foot of the bed and sang quietly to them — the last time, just six hours before he died. “It was like his good-bye ceremony,” Heron said. “It was better than church. It was very peaceful. He was relaxed. That’s how I think of it.”

The choir also sang for Suzanne Gornall’s father Bill Lloyd last summer. He died on a Sunday, Suzanne said, and a group of women from the choir came to his home in the assisted living facility at VCCC Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before his death. The first two evenings he was quiet. The third night he was quiet until the women sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and then he transformed. “He started to tap his foot,” Suzanne said, “like he was tapping to the music.”

The women sang a few more songs, and Suzanne requested that they sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” again. This time he sang along. “He was a church member who always belted out a song and someone who always sang in the shower,” Suzanne said. Bill’s health problems included cardiac failure and dementia, but when the choir left, Suzanne said, “My dad was so with it and so aware.”

For the next half hour, Suzanne, her sister and Barbara Garrett, the social worker at Break Time, the adult day health program at the care center, sang together. They sang old songs, Suzanne said, like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Her dad remembered all the words. “It’s our best memory,” Suzanne said. “It was just this magical time.” Bill was quiet again Saturday, and on Sunday he died.

The music the women sing — hymns, rounds, lullabies, spirituals and choral music — is meant to soothe and has been found to ease pain, but this kind of unity at the bedside is also one of its benefits, said Frykman-Thieme, who also works as a hospice nurse and certified music therapist. “Music at the bedside creates a container where everything that needs to happen can happen,” she said. “People around the bedside may be at different stages of grief. It brings them together … Many times they start to sing with us.”

Just as Bill Lloyd did, many others with dementia respond to music in ways some people might not expect them to. “Sometimes we find that people who have dementia connect in a deep way with songs they learned in elementary school — ‘Home, Home on the Range,’ ‘Down in the Valley,’ campfire songs,” said Susan Commeree, one of the choir members and a recently retired nurse from VCCC. “One woman with severe dementia laughed out loud for the first time in years — to the delight of her family,” said Barb Adams, co-leader of the group and a therapeutic musician with hospice.

When the women gather at a bedside to sing, one of the ways they choose the songs is based on the body rhythms of the person they are singing for, according to Frykman-Thieme. They pay particular attention to the person’s breathing. If a person has end-stage pulmonary disease, for example, his or her breathing might be too fast, which is exhausting for the person and often scary. The women can offer relief by matching their singing to the rhythm of the breath and then bit by bit slowing down; the person’s breath will slow as well.

The Vashon Threshold Choir formed in the spring of 2005. Jan Thomas, who no longer lives on the Island, began the choir. She had lived in the San Francisco area, where the first Threshold Choir began in 2000. Choirs have formed in several California cities and 10 other states since then. On Vashon, each woman in the choir joined for different reasons. Some have a medical background, and some do not.

Some have been singing their whole lives; some used to sing but stepped away from it for awhile and thought the choir would be a good way to return to it and give something back to the community at the same time. At least two of the women have aging parents far away. “I have a mother in Illinois, and she will be 100 in April. I can’t do it for her, but I can do it here,” said Carol Ellis, a counselor at Chautauqua for many years and a Threshold singer.

The choir members practice twice a month, once at The Tea Shop after hours and once at the Care Center. They sing first in the dining room so that many residents can enjoy the music, and then they rehearse privately. During the private rehearsal, the women take turns resting in a recliner, with others around them singing. All the women agree that is an important part of their practice — and a treat for the woman being sung to. “Singing at the bedside is the ultimate thing to do for someone who is at the end of life,” Frykman-Thieme said. “It provides an oasis of peace.” Adams called it “beaming love.”

“When someone is dying, there is often nothing you can say,” Ellis added. “But there is always something you can sing.”

Posted by acapnews at February 7, 2007 11:16 PM