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Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care Music Therapy Program Strikes the Right Notes with Patients

Music brings comfort, joy and connections during difficult times

On a good day, Jim Summers can remember what his favorite television show is, how he takes his coffee or that he actually wears glasses to read the morning newspaper. However, most days he remembers little at all — frustrated by a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease and the complex routine of a life he doesn’t recognize or understand.

Each day Jim’s wife, Rose, patiently and lovingly assists him with the most fundamental and often personal of tasks. From shaving his stubbly face with that fancy new electric razor he got for Father’s Day, to slowly buttoning up the front of his cozy flannel shirt, Rose remains a steadfast and compassionate caregiver despite often feeling like a stranger.

On this particular day, Jim isn’t doing so well. After a very long morning, he’s escorted to the living room where he’ll stare blankly at the TV for a couple hours while Rose recovers from the morning grind. She’s feeling a bit more exhausted than usual, longing for the companionship and affection her husband was once able to provide. Willing to try anything at this point to connect with him again, on any level, Rose decides to add something new to Jim’s afternoon agenda: music therapy.

Days later, Rose eagerly answers a knock at the front door, welcoming Stefana Dadas, a board-certified music therapist with Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, or VHNC, into her quaint Santa Barbara home. After a candid discussion about Jim’s condition and history, Dadas pulls an acoustic guitar from its case and begins serenading him with the World War II classic, “White Cliffs of Dover.” Jim studies her fingers intently as they dance across the bronze strings. And then it happens. Something Rose hasn’t seen her husband do in quite some time. Jim smiles.

Imagine not being able to remember your spouse’s name, perhaps even your own name, but with little effort could hum note-for-note, a song your grandmother used to sing to you as a young child. Can you imagine the excitement, the relief, you might find in being able to identify with something from the past and, for a brief moment, feel like you had some sense of who you are or where you came from?

People with Alzheimer’s often lose the ability to speak or recognize loved ones as the disease progresses, but many retain the capacity to remember songs from long ago. It isn’t suggested that music can reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s, but studies have shown that music therapy can complement other forms of treatment and offer substantial long-term health benefits and comfort.

Following the success of their initial session, Dadas developed a music therapy schedule with specific goals for Jim based on his condition and personal history. In the weeks that followed, he not only continued to smile, but actually began singing along with Dadas, who shared dozens of songs she thought might spark some memory of days long forgotten. Jim’s response to the therapy was remarkable and Rose found great respite in knowing her husband, at least for a few hours a week, was able to find joy and peace through music.

“While all of the hospice services are unbelievably marvelous, Stefana is among the best,” Rose Summers said. “It’s the one time a week that Jim and I are able to connect and share memories through the music. It is the highlight of our week.”

Through the generosity of local philanthropists Julie and Jack Nadel, Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care is able to offer music therapy to Jim as part of its ongoing hospice services. The Nadels started the Elly Nadel Music Therapy Program in 2008 as a tribute to Nadel’s late wife, who benefited from the healing power of music during her battle with cancer.

“Bringing Elly’s favorite music to her during those final days dramatically improved the quality of her life,” Nadel said. “We’re thrilled the Elly Nadel Music Therapy Program will bring comfort and peace to hospice patients in their last days.”

Dadas and VNHC’s Elly Nadel Music Therapy Program serve dozens of patients who receive treatment on a regular basis. The program is of particular benefit to hospice patients, bringing relief from physical symptoms like pain or discomfort and reducing psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression or isolation commonly associated with end-of-life care. Dadas finds music therapy also of great benefit to family members and friends navigating the grief process.

A nonprofit organization founded in 1908, Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care provides licensed music therapy to hospice patients like Jim throughout Santa Barbara County, including the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys.

Patient names in this story have been changed to protect their privacy in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA.

Click here for more information on Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, or call 805.965.5555.

— Greg Rogers is Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care’s communications director.

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