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By Paula Greenwood, RN, CVM, Director of Volunteers, Peterborough Hospice, Peterborough, ON

Hospice Peterborough is a community-based hospice serving the city and county of Peterborough, Ontario. We support people and their families through serious illness and grief. For over 24 years, we have offered a variety of services including visiting volunteers, a day hospice program, caregiver support, grief programming for children, teens and adults. We continue to respond to our community with new services like Bedside Singing.

The Bedside Singers at Hospice Peterborough began with a chance conversation in the summer of 2008. A few of us were chatting about the power of music and it became the catalyst for a plan that we could offer music to our clients. Four of us met to investigate the possibilities further.

Jan Stirling-Twist, Kate Jarrett, and Sylvia Robinson - original members of that group, responded to the initiative and Jan attended a workshop in November, held in Brattleboro, Vermont with the Hallowell singers. The timing was perfect.

From Jan:  

Recently I visited Vermont where I attended an introductory training in the art and heart of bedside singing for healing and hospice.  The Hallowell Singers, a well established bedside singing choir, hosted the workshop and their loving practice was a joy to experience and witness.  The commitment of small groups of talented vocalists working gently and sensitively to bring harmony to the last months, days and hours of someone’s life was truly wonderful.

More and more of us are inspired to turn to song as a way of nurturing the spirits and feeding the hearts of the people we serve through Hospice.  Might you be one of us? 

If so, you are invited to attend an introductory evening at Hospice Peterborough to learn more, and to contribute to a discussion about how we might create a bedside singing choir right here in our community. 

Thus began our real journey, as we gathered questions, comments, ideas and brainstormed together.

We knew from these conversations and Jan’s experience with Hallowell that our next steps included a specific type of training; building on our ‘tried and true’, ten-week, 30 hour course. Many of the people who stepped forward were already hospice volunteers, and there were a few who were new to us. We decided to offer a five-week, 15 hour course for all, with content that brought together the foundations of hospice palliative care, but also offered opportunities to sing and build a team of singers who connected with each other. Songs were woven through each session.  

After months of planning, training, practicing and building repertoire, the first ‘sing’ occurred in May of 2010.  We had decided that we would offer a small group of four singers in clients’ homes and would bring a larger group (sometimes 6-7) to sing on the Palliative Care Unit at Peterborough Regional Health Centre.  The current group includes 10 women who sing regularly.

In the summer of 2010, a volunteer stepped forward to be the choral leader. Her background included many years of directing church choirs. She brought new beauty to the music due to her attention to detail. Practices were initially held twice monthly at Hospice Peterborough, now monthly, and a keyboard is used to help discern harmonies. When singing to clients, the group sings a cappella, so a pitch pipe is used.

The stories began as we watched the profound effect that music had on the people that were visited. We continue to welcome family and friends who often help with suggestions and sometimes sing along with the client.

The singers do a check-in before beginning their ‘sing’. They huddle together to see how each person is doing and check-in for their readiness to begin their time together.  

There is one singer who acts as lead on the unit each visit. She connects with the nurse in charge, who then goes around to each bed to ask if they’d like a visit from the singers. If they would, she puts a yellow ‘sticky’ note on the door, as a signal to the singers that they can approach the patient/s in that room. When the singers come around to that room, the lead singer goes in to introduce herself  and the singers. She asks about preferences, sacred or secular, and does a quick assessment of the situation, and reports back to the other singers.

Then after the ‘sing’ is over, they do another check-in with each other and talk about how they’re feeling, what worked, and what didn’t…magical moments and difficult ones.

A few stories…On a beautiful night in July, the singers moved from room to room, and entered the room of Joan who had been a hospice volunteer herself. The repertoire on the unit includes 2-4 songs for each patient. For Joan, they chose “Angels Hovering ‘Round. Joan was not able to speak, but she was able to show facial expression and move her arms. As the singers began, her face lit up and she start to wave her arms back and forth.  And her eyes filled with tears as the song ended. She died a few weeks later.

Sharon and her husband were a couple we happened to know as well – she had attended our day hospice program. Sharon was frail, and her health had deteriorated considerably when the singers came one night to sing. She and her husband sat together and held hands and tears flowed freely.  

Kate was in her fifties, feisty as they come, and was very clear about whom she did and didn’t want entering her room. She allowed the singers in – and was moved to tears, full of appreciation for the beauty of their music.

When I do attend with the singers, I’ll often be out in the hallway with my Hospice Peterborough vest on and visitors, staff will walk by and say things like “are you with them?” pointing into the room. When I say that I am, they talk about how much they appreciate the service, how lovely the music is – and how much it means to their loved ones and patients.

The Singers leave a business card at the bedsides of patients they visit, and for those who may have fallen asleep. It looks like this:

Bedside Singers visited today
volunteers from
Supporting you through serious illness or grief
Call for more information

Twice monthly, the singers visit a hospice client in their home. They are often people with a great love for music but may be quite isolated or bedbound. What delight is apparent in response to these voices! A very elderly retired minster who has travelled the world, spoke to me about the sweetness of their voices and how the music touched him deeply.

And so, we continue to learn and grow. We have had some bumps along the way but are committed to offering this service to our community through Hospice Peterborough.

If music is the language of the soul, singing for the dying speaks directly to the soul, gives comfort, opens hearts, and offers grief a place to rest. Singing helps the grieving and the dying find release and peace. What could be more lovely, at the end of life, than the voices of angels singing in harmony?
    -Kathy Leo, Founder & Coordinator of Hallowell Singers

About the Author:  Paula Greenwood is the Volunteer Coordinator at Hospice Peterborough. Since Paula joined Hospice over six years ago, she has had the opportunity to offer over 600 hours of training sessions of volunteers  to about 350 volunteers, and has led many workshops and information sessions. She also facilitates the weekly Day at Hospice and the women\'s cancer support group. Prior to that, she coordinated volunteers and fundraising at the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN) for 12 years, worked as an RN for 20 years in hospitals and taught at Fleming College. Her love of music matches beautifully with the initiatives of the Bedside Singers and is delighted with the generous spirit and song that the group brings to the community.