Compassion, Activity, Music Helping Unlock Hospice Patients’ Hearts, Minds

When Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care volunteer, Denise Damon, visits a patient for the first time, it feels a lot like Christmas day. She can’t wait to meet the new person, find out his or her likes and dislikes, and, because many of them have dementia or Alzheimer’s, find a way to communicate and connect.

“I try to meet the patient where they are,” said Damon. “I try to get their attention by rubbing their head or touching their shoulder to start the interaction. Then, I find out what their interests are. Being a hospice volunteer is so rewarding and life-changing.”

Damon currently has two assigned hospice patients, including a dementia patient receiving care at an assisted living facility. During her first encounter with the patient, Damon discovered she used to enjoy cooking. At the next visit, Damon brought a cookbook, allowing them to look over recipes and discuss the pictures. Slowly, the patient’s mind began to open up. Instead of staring blankly straight ahead, she would look up and light up when Damon would call her name, and smile and laugh whenever she visited. The facility’s memory care staff was amazed.

Like many dementia patients, she enjoys and responds to creative interactions. Damon has used her daughter’s magnetic dollhouse book for some spirited sessions and, depending on the time of year, brings different supplies for seasonal arts and crafts. Other items in her creative toolkit include kinetic items like Play-Doh, a Mr. Potato Head doll, an activity mat and even a bucket filled with sand and seashells.

While bringing items from home has been rewarding for Damon, one item she would like to offer patients is music. Currently, she plays music on her smartphone but would prefer to personalize the experience for each patient.

“Being able to customize an iPod Shuffle with a patient’s favorite tunes would really help me get through to them faster. Music does make a difference,” said Damon.

According to the website, music evokes autobiographical memories inside the mind. The music becomes the strong catalyst to break down barriers created by dementia and Alzheimer’s patients’ physical and cognitive impairments. It brings them back to a time when they first heard the music and can invoke memories of that experience.

Through a new Foundation-funded initiative with Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care called the Music and Memories Program, Damon and other volunteers will get a musical wish. The program plans to purchase 10 iPod Shuffles, a 160-gigabyte laptop, several iTunes gift cards, and other activities to help volunteers connect with patients. “My job is to provide compassion and companionship and connect with patients on their level,” said volunteer Patty McLoughlin. “I like to talk to them about their life stories and find ways to connect. I love what I do and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Connecting with patients by providing compassionate companionship is what Damon, McLoughlin and many other volunteers of Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care do every day. The Music and Memories Program is just one tool that allows them to provide this level of care.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 Inspire Newsletter.