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#ThankfulThursday: Exploring the role of music in mental health

Jun. 25, 2020

Every Thursday, we share a story about a Sinai Health Champion of Care, community member, program or innovation that has helped provide critical support to our patients, our teams and our hospitals.

Music helps patients build connections during COVID-19

Ariana Georghiou's Aunt, Rosina (Rose) Kuhn, was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in late 2019. Her illness, along with advancing Alzheimer’s disease and PTSD symptoms, made it impossible for her family to continue caring for her at home.

“We had to lock the doors to keep her from running out of the house.” Ariana recalls. “One day she had an auditory hallucination and got scared. My brother looked out the window and saw her running barefoot through the snow to the neighbours’ house. We were very concerned about her safety.”

Fortunately, within a few weeks of her cancer diagnosis, Rose was moved into Bridgepoint Active Healthcare's Albert & Temmy Latner Palliative Care Unit.

It was a weight lifted for the family. When Rose was admitted, Ariana even stayed with her the first night to help her settle in.

But the transition was a struggle for Rose, who continually asked to go home. “It was very hard. We could clearly see she was distressed but she couldn’t communicate it,” says Ariana.

The Bridgepoint team got to work to help Rose feel better. She was prescribed anti-psychotic medication to help manage her Alzheimer’s symptoms and PTSD. “They also figured out that she was having pain. Old German ladies are stubborn about sharing stuff like that,” says Ariana.

That’s when Rose’s clinical team suggested she might benefit from music therapy sessions with Catherine Manning, an accredited music therapist who recently joined the interprofessional care team on the unit.

Music therapy forms a link between the patient, the music and the therapist, and can connect people to their memories and inner lives. A lifelong musician with a background in psychology and music therapy, Catherine has worked in palliative/oncology care for 25 years.

“When Catherine started coming to visit Aunt Rose, it just felt like she settled. Before that she only wanted to go home,” says Ariana. “The improvement we’ve seen in her mental state is amazing. She does not remember new people or faces and names, but she knows Catherine. The music has a special power.”

Catherine can attest to the power of music to help meet patients’ deeper needs, supporting goals of improved wellness during their remaining time. She has even shared video-recorded excerpts of music therapy sessions with patients' families, to help them feel close to their loved ones, and to leave them with a meaningful piece of legacy for the future in their absence.

“Music by its nature activates memory, emotions, creates associations with life history, and provides an avenue for meaning-making,” Catherine says. “This can play a critical role in the life review process, as patients approach end of life. I’ve had patients share that, when we share music together, they don’t feel alone anymore.”

That’s exactly what happened for Rose. Born in a German town in what is now Serbia, she originally learned English by singing songs.

“And now that Catherine is there sitting with her and playing music for her, she’s starting to connect with all of these songs she remembers, and the specific feelings and experiences that go along with them,” says Ariana.

Music became even more important to lonely patients when the COVID-19 pandemic meant they couldn’t have visits with family and loved ones. Thanks to generous donor support, the Bridgepoint palliative care team was able to acquire tablets so that family members could chat with patients. Eventually, the tablets may even allow families to even join in on parts of their music therapy sessions.

“They brought her a tablet to talk to us. Even in our absence they’ve really been able to connect her with us,” says Ariana.

“We told the nurses that she likes Tim Horton’s coffee, and on a Zoom meeting the nurse came in and gave her a Timmies and some Timbits. They go above and beyond all the time!

“People on the palliative ward don’t recover, but their quality of life improves so much while they’re there. She really couldn’t be in a better place.”


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