Hospice care is designed to ease lifes last days, and, increasingly, music is a key part of palliative care.
At the Washington Soldiers Home and Colony in Orting, Wash., near Tacoma, where four hospice patients live in the 97-bed nursing-care unit, a harpist plays music to soothe troubled souls. Bonnie Steinkamp, a certified healing musician, played one recent rainy day for Vernon Linth, a World War II and Korean War veteran who served on submarines.
In his late 80s and frail, Linth has great difficulty speaking and seems agitated by the presence of strangers. But when Steinkamp starts playing Danny Boy and other songs, he calms down.
Now hes in his zone with her, says Ileen Gallagher, the nursing units therapeutic recreation specialist, who is in the room watching.
In 2003, one of Steinkamps friends was in intensive care at a hospital in Seattle, dying from cancer. Steinkamp knew the woman through her church, and, in her sorrow, wanted to do somethinganythingto ease her friends suffering.
I wanted to help, she says. But what can you do to help in that situation? And then it came to her: I thought, Im going to play for her.
Steinkamp, who also teaches harp to elementary and middle-school students and leads a local harp ensemble, found a calling in that performance. She trained at the International Healing Musicians Program, which offers instruction by phone and the Internet. Training can take up to a year.
The programs have become increasingly popular in recent years thanks to word-of-mouth praise from family members of hospice patients, says Hilda Harmon, comfort therapy manager for Franciscan Health System in Tacoma.