Comfort and joy

The fine art of dying: Local therapist Emily Keebler uses the healing power of music to help people navigate their final chapter of their lives. photo by Bill Rhodes

The healing power of music can bring comfort and joy to patients living out their final days, notes Emily Keebler, co-founder of the music-therapy program at Four Seasons. People told they have six months or less to live often experience intense anxiety, as well as emotional and spiritual distress, she explains, and the Flat Rock-based nonprofit’s mellifluous treatment program has been remarkably effective at calming and improving patients’ lives.

Keebler's sessions sometimes have the feel of a one-woman live performance. Armed with a guitar, a song book and her lilting alto, Keebler cheers up patients by playing their favorite songs. The most common requests, she says, are "Amazing Grace" and "Over the Rainbow"; gospel music is also particularly popular.

"I do a lot of sort of spiritual work with people," the certified music therapist explains. "Our whole thing is, You've been given this amount of time: How can we make the best of it? How can we support you having the best quality of life you can?"

Often, the songs spur vivid memories and conversations about a patient’s key experiences. In their last days, says Keebler, "People have a high need for life review — going over what their life has been like and what they've done; re-examining the whole thing. Music is processed in the brain in the same areas as memory. Haven't you heard a song and it brought you back to a certain time in your life? Music can really get people talking."

The magic works even with patients suffering from severe dementia and unable to talk, she reveals. "Music just gets in there; it's amazing. A lot of times it helps them calm down. Often, this is one of the only ways they can communicate with the world … hearing what somebody else is doing, and responding."

Keebler remembers one advanced Alzheimer's patient “who couldn't make any sense when he spoke. … But if I would play those old standards, he could sing every word. He could sing so beautifully."

No sad songs

Four Seasons specializes in hospice and palliative care, and Keebler often encourages higher-functioning patients to try their hand at songwriting. She recalls a patient whose body was devastated by Parkinson's disease but whose mind was still sharp.

"He wanted to write a song for his family. The chorus was kind of his philosophy on life, something like, ‘Happy is the way I tend to feel; it's a crazy feeling when you care about someone else. That's why I sing about being married and having kids,’” she explains. "We made a recording of it, us singing together, and gave copies to his family. They were beside themselves with it."

Keebler also sometimes works with bereaved family members.

Deeply saddened by the approaching one-year anniversary of her mom's passing, a high-school student came to Keebler seeking help. Over the course of several sessions, the therapist says, "She wrote this amazing song" about her mom and a visit to her grave. "I didn't really have to do much other than empower her. I asked her what the melody would be and it would just come out," Keebler recalls. "Afterward, she said writing the song helped her know that she's going to be OK … that she'll always love her mom."

Naturally, not every patient has such a profound experience with music therapy. Some simply don't respond; others may have fears about it. "Sometimes people will come in and be like, 'No sad songs,'" Keebler reveals, adding, "We're not going to do anything they don't want to do. … They're the ones guiding the session."

She adds: "Hospice is all about what they want. It's not about trying to get them to go anywhere they don't want to go. It's all about being present with people."

In other words, tuning in.

— To learn more about Four Seasons’ music-therapy program, go to www.fourseasonscfl.org or call 692-6178.  Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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