Program brings music, joy to patients

Edith Edwards' days consist of what she can see out her bedroom window.

Bedbound by a stroke, the 88-year-old watches birds populate her birdfeeders in the morning. In the afternoon she worries about the young children who dart from the school bus into the road.

Her mind remains sharp, but her body is faltering. She struggles with boredom and wishes she could get out of bed.

So when singers from Hospice & Palliative Care of Cabarrus County's Interlude Music Program stopped in during their regular visit to serenade Edith, her first request was the old hymn "I'll Fly Away."

"I would like to walk away, much less fly," she quipped while a musician tuned a mandolin at her bedside.

Edith is one of many hospice patients to benefit from the Music program, which began sending volunteers into hospice facilities and nursing and private homes in 2005.

The comforting music at their bedsides gives patients time to reminisce and reflect in their final months, weeks and sometimes days.

"How about 'Carolina Moon?' " mandolin player Kathleen Blackwell-Plank asked Edith.

"Oh, that'll be fine," she replied, her soft expression perking up.

By the time the dreamy song about pining love had finished, Edith's eyes held a far-off look and were welled with tears.

"I think one of the most powerful parts of music is it connects back to things of meaning from your life," said Blackwell-Plank, who is director of the program and visits several patients each month. "You associate memories with special songs, whether it's a courtship song or music from your youth."

Although Blackwell-Plank, a former member of the Charlotte Symphony, comes from a musical background, most of the 30 volunteers in the program don't have that kind of résumé. "We're not trained singers. We're just folks who like to sing," said Juli Dwiggins.

Dwiggins, a volunteer with the program since its beginning, said some of the most amazing moments happen when they visit dementia units in nursing homes.

Scientists have long recognized the benefits of music for dementia patients, often reawakening their long-term memories and leading them back into conversation with others, if only for a little while.

Dwiggins has seen that occur again and again.

She once watched in astonishment as several Alzheimer's patients, who had been sitting together silently and seemingly unaware of one another, began singing along in harmony during a song. One gentleman's fingers struck the keys of a piano that was invisible to Dwiggins, but still vividly real in his mind.

"And by the end, there were the familiar signs of social graces. They would say, 'Thank you so much for coming,' " she said. "The music pulled them out of the room. These little, individual, isolated souls, all by themselves."

Sometimes the benefits of the program reach beyond the patients, to their families, too.

Parents often ask the volunteers to sing lullabies to their dying children. It's a comfort to the parents as well.

As her elderly mother lay in bed, one woman asked the volunteers to sing "Waltzing Matilda," the lullaby her mother would sing to her as a little girl.

Along with their lyric books, they always keep a few tissues for the tears, either happy or sad, that are shed.

"Is that enough, or would you like one more?" Blackwell-Plank asked Edith once again.

"Maybe just one more."