Serving as a music therapist for a Jewish hospice has turned out to be among the most rewarding personal experiences of my professional life. Each day I travel to nursing homes, assisted living facilities and into people’s homes with my guitar in hand. I meet the most amazing people through my visits. In addition to singing and playing instruments together (I give them percussion instruments to keep time), we often talk. I love to learn about the people for whom I play, about their lives and histories, their talents and passions. It helps us forge relationships and connections.
I recently visited a gentleman who told me that before he retired he was a journalist for the New York Times and an author. But when I asked him what he wrote about he could not remember. So I decided to do some research on my own when I got home. Lo and behold I learned that not only was he a prolific New York Times journalist and a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, but he had also been a speech writer for a Vice President of the United States!
Once I learned that another client (a man in his 90s) shared my passion for baseball, there was much to talk about. He had been a minor league player and shared stories from his youth when he saw Babe Ruth play. We now begin each visit by singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
My hospice work reminds me how beneficial it is to really connect with people in a deeper way – beyond the superficial. I am learning so much life’s wisdom from them. I am inspired by their experience and life stories. I am able to connect with them and lift their spirits so much better when I get to know them.
That’s why a recent story on the front page of the New York Times really struck a chord with me. Perhaps you also saw the poignant article about the lonely and solitary death of a Mr. George Bell. He lived alone and his decomposed body was found many days after his death. Each year in our country there are myriads of people who die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies and no one mourns the conclusion of their lives. They are just another name added to the death tables, and last year George Bell, age 72, was among those names.
George’s story of solitary existence at the end is unfortunately an all too common story for seniors. They are often the ones who die with no one holding their hand, not a family member or a close friend present. From the detective-like story it seemed that George Bell was a kind, generous and humorous man. He loved his parents, cared for his mother through her final illness, worked hard and had some good friends. However, he was unable to share his innermost feelings with his closest friends, who slowly disappeared from his life because of their own deaths or relocation.
My recent hospice visits in juxtaposition to Mr. Bell’s solitary end is a reminder to me that everyone has a story. The person sitting across from you on the subway, the crotchety neighbor down the street, the cashier in the supermarket. They are not nameless faceless individuals – they all have stories and talents and gifts and experiences. While we cannot reach out to everyone, it is important to reach out to our relatives and neighbors, fellow community members and congregants – anyone who could use a personal connection. Anyone who may be in a situation similar to Mr. Bell’s whose social circle has diminished — so that they have dignity in their final days.
These musings bring me to thinking about our Jewish tradition. The High Holy Day liturgy includes a prayer that pleads “Do not forsake me in old age.” According to the Bratslaver Rebbe, the prosperity of a country is in accordance with its treatment of the elderly.
May we do our part to reach out to those who are alone and lonely. I promise you, it will benefit you as much as it benefits them.