Music to aging ears

Ford volunteers take part in a growing trend for treating hospice patients

Like many senior citizens, 87-year-old Patricia struggled with Alzheimer’s disease in her final years. She found it increasingly difficult to communicate and most of the time sat silently in her wheelchair at a hospice center in northwest Michigan.

A spiritual care advisor, looking for new ways to connect with Patricia, discovered she played clarinet in her high school band. He found a clarinet solo by jazz great Pete Fountain and played it for her. It turns out Patricia was a big fan. As she listened to the music, the advisor says, she came alive.

Ford volunteers researched load music into mp3 players
Photograph by Eric Mitchell
Ford volunteers researched music for hospice patients and load the music into playlists on mp3 players.

“Patricia reached out, took my hand and began to ‘dance’ in her wheelchair — first with her hand. Then both feet began to move slowly to the music,” reported Walter Ross, spiritual care advisor at Hospice of Michigan. “There was a great feeling of peace in the air. At the end of our visit Patricia bowed her head and softly spoke two words, ‘Thank you.’”

Hoping to build on the remarkable response Patricia and other patients display to music therapy, Arbor Hospice launched My Music. Ford Motor Company volunteers helped get the My Music pilot project off the ground as part of a recent Ford Accelerated Action Day, a quarterly activity that concentrates larger groups of employees on high-priority projects determined by nonprofit partners.

As dementia progresses, many patients can no longer say or remember the songs they once enjoyed, so Ford volunteers researched music for each individual, selecting songs from a certain era or genre and loading them into playlists on MP3 players. Eager to stimulate memories and deep-rooted feelings of peace and joy, trained Arbor Hospice volunteers use the selected songs selected during patient visits.

“We all have songs in our past that can bring a smile to our face and we’re trying to tap into those good memories,” says Alison Wagner, director of Volunteers Services and Complementary Therapies at Arbor Hospice and Hospice of Michigan. “When we listen to music, the synapses in our brain can actually cross hemispheres. So, when you’re talking about somebody who has memory loss, sometimes you’re able to tap into areas of their memory you might not otherwise see.”

Before the music played, Ford volunteers participated in a deep dive into the subjects of dementia, grief, palliative care and music therapy. They watched a documentary. They learned about music as a non-medical intervention that can relieve some symptoms and help caregivers reach people in new ways that can improve their quality of life. It was a powerful lesson that had an emotional impact.

“They had Kleenex boxes all around for good reason. We were going to give them a glimpse of the life they had and remind them that everything was good at one point,” says Lauren Beauchamp, digital marketing analyst at Ford Credit. “Makes you realize that you can make a difference even with a small thing.”

Ashlyn Knight works with Alison Wagner creating music playlists
Photograph by Charlotte Bodak
Ford volunteer Ashlyn Knight, right, works with Alison Wagner, left to create music playlists for patients with dementia at Arbor Hospice, in Saline, Mich.

“My grandmother had dementia, so it was personal,” says Ashlyn Knight, digital marketing analyst at Ford Credit. “The emotion that we all felt as we watched the documentary hit home on a personal level for several of us.”

An interdisciplinary team comprised of a licensed social worker, nurse, spiritual care advisor, physician, grief support manager and board certified music therapist support the volunteer-based My Music program at Arbor Hospice and Hospice of Michigan. Such programs are on the rise in facilities throughout the U.S because research shows personalized music may help patients remain calm, reduce agitation and sit longer, according to the Canadian Research Network for Care in the Community.

Ford Fund provided more than $42,000 in grants to support many of the day’s projects, including the music program at Arbor Hospice. The digital activity utilized the expertise of Ford employees.

“We’re actually working on digital strategy right now,” says Anna Bonfiglio, digital marketing strategy at Ford Credit. “This is a great experiment to see how user friendly things are and to really understand how technology can help somebody’s life.”

As for Patricia, she experienced a wonderful breakthrough in her final days. She continued to make progress through the music program and actually became verbal enough to say ‘I love you’ to her husband, who hadn’t heard that from her in a long, long time.

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