Music in healthcare settings: A personal perspective

A formidable events organiser, Bairbre Ferguson, first opened my eyes to the power of music in a healthcare setting. Bairbre was organising Lunasa festival in Sligo. I was booked to do a number of musical performances over the course of a few days. One day, between performances, I had some time on my hands and so offered to help with the festival in any way that I could. Bairbre took me up on my offer and asked if I would be her chauffeur for a few hours to allow her to check on a few of the festival events happening around the town. I duly obliged and off we went, no questions asked, just ‘Take the next left’, ‘Straight on’ and ‘Here we are’.

Our first stop, as the other three would also prove to be, was a nursing home. It hit me like a slap across the face. I was shocked that the festival was programming events in a nursing home and then appalled that I found that fact unusual. But, it was and still is, unusual.

Bairbre was off like a shot to make sure all was in hand with the event. The three traditional musicians were in full flight. Nursing home residents, staff and visitors alike made for a full house. Baked goods and the sincere sense of appreciation made for a unique gig atmosphere. Each nursing home had a different approach to their layout; theatre style, in-the-round, relaxed living-room setup; but each had professional musicians playing a festival event to an audience so welcoming of the music and enjoying the sense of community and inclusion. It was emotional.

A couple of hours as a festival chauffeur and my own perspective on music and its place in the community had shifted. Here were people who no doubt enjoyed the arts in their pre-nursing home years and perhaps even taught music to people locally who, if not for Bairbre, might have been forgotten about when it came to arts programming that month. The idea that festivals could exclude people who likely could not choose to attend a concert seemed to be grossly unfair to me and yet this was the first time I had witnessed a family festival programme being extended into nursing homes. 

Seven years later I am now trained as a hospital musician working in geriatric settings. Inspired by what I had witnessed in Sligo, I got in touch with my local Arts Office back then only to learn they were already making plans to train a panel of musicians who could work in healthcare settings around Co. Meath. Guided by established hospital musicians and trainers Grainne Hope and Liam Merriman of Training Notes, an organisation that trains musicians in the Musique et Santé method, I embarked on formal training alongside fellow Meath musicians Aoife Stevens and Sandra Collins on best practice of how to bring music into healthcare settings.

Through this training I learned that while there is certainly a place for the concert style  event there was another more nuanced way of bringing music into healthcare settings. We learned how to use music as a vehicle for connection in ways similar to a normal performance but heightened; more personal and intense. We learned to be more aware, compassionate and to factor medical considerations into musical choices. On completing the training we set up a group called Healthy Beats and under a mentorship from Training Notes are delivering a H.S.E and Meath Arts Council programme to Meath nursing homes and hospitals. Prior to Covid restrictions we would make regular visits and hold sessions in day rooms in-the-round, make bedside visits and sometimes even play in the corridors to let the music float about the building. Staff tend to get involved, dancing down the hallways or singing harmonies.

It is usually after a session that we learn about the magic that has happened. On one particular occasion after playing a song by Elvis, ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’, a resident chatted with me about ‘The King’ and proceeded to ask for another Elvis song. We played an extended version of ‘Blue Moon’ for him. He sang along and we chatted about the day and where I was from and then my fellow musicians and I moved on to play for some other residents down the corridor. A few moments later we found out that this man’s wife had been close by and was extremely surprised and moved by what she had just witnessed. Her husband had advanced dementia and was non-verbal. And just minutes before we were singing together and chatting about simple, easy things. Somehow the right song at the right moment made a connection that allowed for that delightful moment. She was overjoyed to know that this kind of connection was still possible given her husband’s condition. As hospital musicians we were so rewarded by the positivity of that interaction, knowing that it would further spread, trickling down through family phone calls and chats over the coming months. 

Bairbre Ferguson passed away June 2014 but her legacy and kindness lives on.

Saramai will be joining us as a guest on our Grandpal Webinars series, launching later this month. Talking to the therapeutic powers of music, we will explore the measurable positive effects it can have on a person's wellbeing plus highlight ways that you can incorporate some commonly used methods and practices with your own older loved ones at home.

Be there for an older loved one, from anywhere.