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Music Therapy Among the Ways Hospice Supports Families and Celebrates Life

The longer Cara Brindisi works in hospice, the more she keeps "falling in love" with it. 

"There's so much reward and so much peace. I get to meet many different families. There's a lot of storytelling, and a lot of celebration of people's lives," said Cara, a board-certified music therapist with VNA Hospice & Palliative Care. 

The nonprofit's hospice team provides physical, emotional, spiritual, and practical support to terminally ill individuals and their loved ones. Care is available in patients' homes, assisted living and nursing facilities, and hospice residences in Cambridge, Needham, and Worcester. 

"In hospice, we're often working on things like relieving pain and anxiety, interpersonal relationships, end-of-life review, legacy leaving, family support, memory recall, and the list goes on and on," said Cara. "A music therapist's goals are very much in alignment with the goals that a nurse, social worker, and chaplain are also addressing, but the way to reach those goals is with music."

Cara (pictured), with guitar in hand, may find herself improvising a song with a patient as a way to support that individual with however they are feeling. "When you hear your own words sung back to you, there's something very empowering and validating about that," she said. 

Other times, music will bring back a lifetime of memories, like the day Cara played a song made famous in 1957 by Patti Page, "Old Cape Cod."

"I'm with this couple in their 90s who've been married for 65 years, and they start talking about their years together on the beach in Cape Cod like they were just there yesterday. Music elicits those memories," said Cara.  

Patients often want to leave a tangible legacy. Cara remembered one woman who was finishing her PhD just weeks before she died. The patient wanted to write letters to her large, extended family, but her illness made it difficult. The two wrote a song together using the words the patient wanted to leave behind for those she loved. Cara recorded the song and made CDs for the family. 

Musicians have been among Cara's patients. One gentleman was a drummer and performed with bands all over New England. He talked to Cara about having a concert for his neighbors, and Cara got things rolling. Cara and the patient rehearsed over the course of two weeks for the show. 

"From the outside, it looks like entertainment, but it really was so therapeutic. He didn't have a ton of family, but he was able to leave something within the last weeks of his life for the people in his building," said Cara. "Just the level of joy that was brought about through the experience was incredible. He passed away within a week of the performance. It really was one of his last life experiences."

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