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Music as a Pastoral Care Tool

There is tremendous power in listening to the “old” music that provides the soundtrack to your life. Those “old” pieces can ignite new opportunities for conversation and connection. The question is: Can we use the power of that music to assist with pastoral care? Pastors and lay visitors struggle to provide support and spiritual care for their members who living with dementia. So, what if music were used as a tool to help make the connections?

My spouse and I were in the car with his phone plugged into the car’s system, and music randomly playing from his collection. Suddenly, I realized that the new band that was coming from the car speakers was not his typical genre. I looked at him quizzically. He just said, “It’s for Bob.”  Bob was a member of our congregation who had been living in a care community for many years due to his increasing needs as he lived with dementia. My spouse, Dave, also an ordained minister, had downloaded some of Bob’s favorite songs to use when making pastoral visits.

Alive Inside

The increasing amount of research showing the positive effects of music on the brain is empowering. Dan Cohen is the social worker volunteer who leads the campaign to get iPods and headphones into every senior living community in the country is documented in the film, “Alive Inside.” I strongly recommend viewing it with a tissue close at hand. The most famous of the film’s characters is Henry. You see the awakening of Henry from a noncommunicative downward eye posture to a wide-eyed singing (and scatting) man who can answer questions and recognize those around him.

After seeing the documentary, the organization for which I work, United Church Homes, decided to certify all of our communities in Music & Memory, the organization Cohen formed. Not everyone responds as brilliantly as Henry in the film, but we have our own versions of music awakening the lives of residents. I encouraged Dave to see the documentary, and he decided to try it when he visited our beloved member, Bob.

Connecting with Bob

The first time Dave took the music, he played it from his phone on speakers that he brought. Bob, Dave and I were in a small community space. Bob sat in his chair and listened. His wife of 60 years entered the room, and Bob looked up at her and reached for her hand. He didn’t sing or dance, but there was a deep connection in his gaze that had become rarer as the disease progressed. Dave continued to use the music at the beginning of subsequent visits with Bob and found that it helped to generate conversation and connection.

The premise of the music is that it has to be a song that connects to the individual’s earlier life. Because there is no center of music in the brain, when we listen to music or participate in making music, we are using multiple parts of our brains at the same time. Music connects to emotions and fine motor skills. It involves both sides of the brain in addition to the areas that account for hearing and speaking and singing and seeing. Each time we listen to “our” music, all of these areas work together to make connections. And when we listen to the music that spans our life time, the music “opens” up those connections. In its wake is a new possibility for conversation and memory and personality to shine through, if but for a short period of time.

Personal Playlists

Eventually, we all will take “our” music with us into our older years. We will have our life playlists assembled on small devices that travel with us into hospitals and retirement communities, recovery rooms and rehabilitation. But for the current generation, who may not have adopted the technology of Mp3 players and small, portable headphones, there may be an opportunity to find ways to bring the technology and music to them.

What if we had playlists on our own devices that included songs and artists that were popular during different eras 40, 50, 60 and 70 years ago? Or what if we compiled a collection of hymns and songs that are familiar and important from our community of faith? Even selections from the praise band or contemporary band or bell choir would generate similar responses. (Yes, praise bands have been around long enough for some that it might work! The biggest supporter of our contemporary worship service started 20 years ago with Pat who was 70 years old at the time.) We could take these with us as we visited our members who are living with dementia.

Even if they don’t know the words, playing music from your faith community might help them “recognize” that you are from their congregation. The goal is not to have the profound awakening moment, like Henry in the film, but to connect this member of your community with their faith and their experience of the sacred.

The Role of Music

If you haven’t tried singing with individuals who are living with dementia, it can be wonderful experience. A mentor of mine lives with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’, which has taken away his ability to speak. He can, however, sing on key and enunciate every word. There is joy as he sings the songs and hymns that he has sung throughout his lifetime!

Chaplain colleagues who work in the memory care neighborhoods of our communities share the joy of beginning the “Gloria Patri” only to have multiple residents join them. Even when their usual posture is to sit alone separated by the interrupted thought processes that the dementia creates. The singing literally brings the community together.

We also observe that the previously regular pastoral visits enjoyed by residents from their home church tend to cease once tan individual needs to live in a memory care neighborhood. I have to admit, these were not my favorite moments of pastoral care when I was serving the local church. But I didn’t know how to connect nor did I have access to the music.

The next time you have 30 minutes to see your Bob, find a way to take a couple of pieces that would connect them with their earlier years. Spend about 10 minutes listening to the music with them. You can use either ta speaker in a room away from other noise or a splitter and headphones for each of you. After you turn off the tunes, begin a conversation. Be prepared to be surprised with what the music unlocks. And enjoy the glimpses of connections that come in the music’s wake.

About Rev. Beth Long-Higgins

AvatarRev. Beth Long-Higgins is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, musician, fiber artist and mother of two adult children.

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