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Published on September 09, 2008

Acoustical Counsultant: Music Therapy Helps Some Patients Deal with Pain

September 9, 2008

Jen Conley plucked with one hand lightly on the strings of a small harp sitting in her lap. With the other hand she held Virginia Nelson's hand and started singing "You Are My Sunshine."

Virginia, 82, sat Monday afternoon at home in a recliner with a blanket over her lap and mouthed the words as Conley sang the melody in a soothing high tone. Virginia's eyes brightened and a small smile formed across her mouth as Conley colored the singing with warm notes from the harp.

Between playing classic ballads from the 1930s and 1940s and hymns, Conley asks Virginia - who has multiple sclerosis - if she wants to hear more music.

"You're not wearing me out," Virginia replied. "It's lovely."

The music Conley plays for Nelson is a form of treatment designed to ease her pain. Without chemicals or other methods usually associated with treating an illness, music therapy can relieve stress and anxiety and enhance coping skills, especially when people are close to dying, according to medical journal reports.

Since July, Conley has played and sang for patients who are referred to her by DeKalb County Hospice. Grants from the DeKalb County Community Foundation, the George and Betty Dutton Foundation and the Ideal Industries Foundation were used to fund the program.

The ability to remember and interpret sounds is one of the last brain functions to cease when a person is aging, Conley said. Playing familiar music helps a person who is in a state where they can hardly move or communicate because the brain still recognizes familiar sounds, Conley said.

Conley visits privately with families in their homes and also plays and sings at Pine Acres Rehab & Living Center in DeKalb. Before the sessions, she meets with nurses, social workers and family members to find out what music will best suit the person.

"You can hear a song and literally be taken back to and place or a situation," Conley said. "That helps with the life review process and you can take comfort and joy in life experiences."

Relatives of patients she has met have seen their loved ones - many who were unable to move or talk - react to Conley's music by humming to the music or moving toward her while she played, Conley said.

Rick Berens said his mother, Francis, loved music, which is why Conley was invited to visit with the family. Francis was 85 years old when she passed away recently. Conley's music not only soothed Francis but helped the family cope with her impending death, Rick Berens said.

"It meant the world to all of us," Berens said. "Jen played, ‘You Are My Sunshine,' and mom used to play that for us on the piano. She reached up and held Jen's hand at one point."

Pat Baker said her mother, 95-year-old Adra Gallagher, died two days after her first session with Conley. Doctors had previously recommended a low-dose anti-anxiety prescription for Gallagher but the medicine didn't help, Baker said.

But her session with Conley eased her to the point where she was resting peacefully, Baker said.

"I was really connected to her and aware of her anxiety of what would happen," Baker said. "That Friday and Saturday night we both slept peacefully."

On Aug. 5, Conley was playing for 92-year-old Helen Bozivich when she died, Pine Acres Administrator Dalena Kemna-Kahn said. Bozivich didn't have many visitors, which made Conley's presence even more important during her last days, Kemna-Kahn said.

"She connects with everyone who can hear the music, not just the patients," Kemna-Kahn said. "Even residents who aren't verbal any longer, you can see physical reactions."

Playing live in front of people allows her to spontaneously interact with the environment, Conley said. If a patient starts out tense, Conley can gradually slow the music down to put him or her at ease, she said. She can also incorporate the beeping of a heart-rate monitor while she plays guitar, harp or keyboard, Conley said.

Conley is certified as a music therapist and is also a professional counselor, which sometimes becomes a needed part of the sessions, she said.

While at the Nelson's house, Virginia's husband, Martin, asked Conley to play "Love Me Tender" for the second time during the session. He joined in singing with Conley, and then started to cry after they sang the words "may we never part."

Conley stopped playing and encouraged Martin to talk about what he was feeling.
"This is all so beautiful, but I just wish it wasn't like this," he said.

"Love songs say things for a lot of us," Conley said. "It's good to get these things out."

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