Harry Oxley settles deeper into his oversized recliner, his deep-set eyes glistening as Sarah Newberry snugs her guitar into her lap.
“Here’s a song you requested,” she says. “If you feel comfortable singing and enjoy it, sing your heart out.”
As her lilting voice glides into “The Girl That I Marry,” Oxley smiles, then manages to sing a few words here and there, despite the oxygen tube running into his nostrils. When the song ends, he sighs.
“Your voice is so soothing. … It makes me feel young again,” he says, then adds a teasing plea: “Will you marry me?”
Oxley isn’t marrying anyone. The 88-year-old is in hospice with congestive heart failure. The music Newberry sings for him won’t help him live longer, but it’s one of several hospice therapies designed to help him live better. “What we’re doing is not entertainment, per se,” said Anna Lee Roberts, who, like Newberry, works with Allina Hospice and Palliative Care. “It’s working toward specific objectives — relieving pain and anxiety.”
Hospice music therapy is a relatively new and quickly growing offshoot of music therapy.
Unlike traditional music therapy, which often is used to help children with special needs and people who are recovering from traumatic injuries, such as former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hospice music therapists work with patients and their families, using musical instruments, songs and conversation to encourage reminiscence.
“We help patients review their lives through songs and projects to leave a legacy for their families and to process their thoughts and feelings and experiences at the end of life,” said Newberry.
Playing everything from sitars to bongo drums to harps, hospice music therapists try to forge personal, trusting connections, even though many of those connections may not be long-lasting.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be with someone at that part of their life and their journey,” said Newberry. “Seeing how music can help people with their symptoms, their pain, their anxiety and depression, it’s amazing how you can see it transforming them. Everyone knows music is powerful, but as therapists you get to really see it all the time.”
Newberry, Roberts and their colleagues try to cater the therapy to each patient, taking into account how ill they are, where they reside and how they feel about dying. And, of course, their musical interests.
Oxley’s musical wheelhouse is mid-20th-century pop. In his apartment at Coon Rapids’ Epiphany Assisted Living, he keeps two old songbooks (“The Very Best of the Rat Pack” and “I’ll Be Seeing You: 51 Songs of World War II”) and he often bemoans the fact that “there’s nobody like Perry Como or Bing Crosby or Patti Page anymore.”
Except perhaps Newberry.
After she treats Oxley to her renditions of “Girl of My Dreams,” “That’s Amore” or “One Dozen Roses,” he has nothing but praise.
“This girl here has the most gorgeous voice,” Oxley said. “She could be on any show you could name, but she works for Allina and sings to people like me.”
Need will only grow
Music therapy came to the fore in the 1940s, when doctors observed the positive effects of community musicians playing for soldiers suffering from what was known as shell shock. For decades, most music therapists worked exclusively with veterans.
In the 1970s, the hospice movement started gaining momentum, thanks in large part to the bestseller “On Death and Dying,” in which Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross advocated for home care and patient choices for the terminally ill.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the two practices merged. Now there are 45 certified hospice music therapists in the Twin Cities.
That won’t be enough, according to Russell Hilliard, the nation’s first professional hospice music therapist.
“If you look at the trajectory of dementia alone, the need is going to be exponential,” said Hilliard, vice president of supportive care and patient experience at Chicago-based Seasons Hospice Foundation. “Knowing that music therapy reaches patients with advanced dementia better than anything else, I’m genuinely concerned with whether we will have enough therapists.”
But the job is a difficult one, because it revolves around connecting with people who are struggling and, in most cases, likely to die soon.
“Obviously, the emotional intensity of the work can be really challenging, kind of being immersed in somebody else’s world and space,” Newberry said. “We certainly have ups and downs.”
But for Newberry, the headaches and heartaches are far outweighed by the rewards.
“There can be a lot of pain and struggling, but also a lot of beautiful things,” she said. “One of my favorite experiences is to be with someone within a day or two of dying. It’s just me and that person, and it just feels really peaceful — it feels like there’s a spiritual power in the room.”
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4