Bedside Choir Provides ‘Threshold’ Comfort

LITTLETON, Mass. — Eighty-five-year-old Ruth Coleman sits in a wheelchair, immobilized by advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Her eyes are closed and her head is tilted back. Her daughter, Susan Coleman, holds her hand. Susan has asked Threshold Choir to visit the nursing home here, where her mother is slowly dying. Three women sing to Ruth.

“She’s much more quiet today,” Susan says. “But so much of the time when (the choir members) come to sing to her, Mom will have been saying nothing, really not responding that much. And her eyes haven’t been open this morning yet and now they are opening. And sometimes she’ll try to sing along.

Experiencing Threshold's Rehearsal

“It just really touches her on a level that most things don’t anymore. It’s wonderful.”

As the singing continues, Ruth taps her foot — not in time to the music — but it’s the most movement she’s done all day, her daughter says. 

The choir honors an ancient tradition of singing to people who are struggling. “We help to open a door to this person,” says Peg Lorenz, who had been a hospice volunteer for more than a decade when she joined the choir.

“We help to kind of allow them the energy to move into the next phase of their existence, which is beyond death,” Lorenz says.

Another singer is Pam Espinosa, who started the all-volunteer local choir three years ago after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and faced her own mortality.

“When I was thinking if I might die, how would I want to go out?” Espinosa asks. “I come from a very musical family so I can imagine being sung to by my family.”

Espinosa started Threshold Choir at Indian Hill Music, a nonprofit music education and performance center here in Littleton, after reading about the first group in California. The hospice choir movement has blossomed in New England with groups in western Massachusetts and Vermont. The philosophy is that the singers don’t perform, they share songs when invited by the family.  

Susan Randazzo, Indian Hill Music’s executive director, says the choir prefers small groups of three or four singers. She says the energy changes; that it’s intimate and emotional.

Three members of Threshold Choir sing to 85-year-old Ruth Coleman at a Littleton nursing home. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

“This is a very precious time, for not only the patient, but for families, so it’s not appropriate to be there with a large group,” Randazzo says.

To prepare for the intense experience, the choir rehearses with someone reclining in a lawn chair in the middle of the circle. On a recent night, they asked me to sit in the chair to see what it feels like.

Four women surrounded me in the chair and sang softly. I closed my eyes and felt like I was floating with the music. I experienced it in a way unlike anything I’d ever experienced, with the live voices so close to my ears. I felt the vibrations as much as I heard them. 

The choir has a repertoire of original songs and hymns, but they’ve also sung artists requested by the family, such as Patsy Cline and The Beatles. During the recent visit to see Ruth Coleman, her daughter asked them to sing a song that brings her mother back to childhood, like “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Susan sits close to her mother, stroking her hair. “People go back in Alzheimer’s,” she says. “They go back someplace and that’s where she is. And so that’s the kind of time-frame for her, the country, Kentucky.”

The choir has visited Ruth several times as her disease has progressed, but typically they are called to the bedside of a person only once.  Randazzo remembers one visit very well — on New Year’s Eve.

“The family was planning to turn the machines off for their mom,” she recalls.

Lorenz was one of the other singers. “My knees were shaking,” she says. “We had been out on many but that was so unique in the immediacy of what they were going to be doing. They were going to be pulling the plug on their mother and she was going to die.”

The dying woman was in the intensive care unit, surrounded by her husband, children, clergy and the choir. There were tears, smiles and an intense connection, Randazzo says. 

“It was just one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had,” Randazzo says, “being with the family and I think the music is for everyone in the room and it serves a purpose for everyone in the room. And we get back as much as we give.”

This story originally aired on June 8. It re-aired Dec. 28.

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  • http://WBUR.org Colleen Haggerty

    This story moved me to tears. I do elder care and have been involved with several hospice cases. I wish I had know about this choir sooner. God Bless you for the work you are doing.

  • Cynthia Schroer

    There is a wonderful threshold choir at Home, Health and Hospice in Merrimack, NH also.

  • Julie

    Thank you for this story. This is amazing work, and so meaningful.

  • ursula kristoffy

    These Threshold choirs are a blessing. As a trained Hospice Volunteer I belong to a very spiritual one at First Parish in Concord. When I suffered with fractured vertebraes for 6 month in the hospital, my choir sang to me which touched my husband and me to tears. Finally at home 8 members came and we sang in the garden where even the birds chirped in. We all cried.

  • Sean FIske

    It’s wonderful to hear something so amazing and touching coming from your town!

  • http://www.mypcos.info/1 Anne

    Thank you for this lovely article. I too am fortunate to be a part of a Threshold Choir and I think that the members receive as much healing from the beautiful songs as we give.

  • Dorothy Mason

    Our Threshold Choir met just last night, and I am still full
    from our singing. Thank you for the blessings you offer!!!
    Dorothy Mason, West Simsbury, CT

  • http://Comcast.net Zenos M Linnell

    Wow. The only thing I ave to say is a person who is dying should be prepared for this emotional experience in advance. It can be deep and satisfying. I have written a book about “An Ode to Joy” as a human experience of learning to be a person.

  • Susan Garrett

    I’m in Marin singing with Kate Munger’s Threshold Choir here. Your telling is moving and inspirational. Thank you for the depth of your heart-felt service and how beautifully you describe this amazing privlege we who sing with Threshold are called to be a part of! Thank you, to ALL who attend “at the threshold!” -Susan Garrett, Marin Threshold Choir, CA.

  • http://wbur.org Renee Anderson

    I have been working with the Threshold Choir at Indian Hill with Nashoba Hospice and would say that their availability is wonderful! I can call them with a patient that is dying and they make a way to visit them and make a difference in the experience with the family.

  • http://JourneySongs.org Kate Mason

    We are a 1 yr old hospice choir in Newton MA. Would love to get a network of choirs in MA so we can exchange info and make referrals (I am also a hospice nurse). We are planning a presentation at the annual Hospice Conference in November and would love to have other choirs participate.

  • Abbe

    When Alzheimer’s had taken away much of what was my father-in-law, the one thing that he always recognized and made an outward effort to enjoy was music. Long after he could no longer his wife and children he still knew Gilbert & Sullivan. I think what these choirs are doing is beautiful and purposeful.

  • Joan Hollister

    Our Threshold singing group is now just over a year old. We are a mixed group of men and women from the North Shore. Some have felt it might be too painful to sing in such a group, but “doing so” often helps us bridge that fear as the spirit guides our reaching out soul to soul. We are based in Marblehead and welcome talking with anyone interested in this ministry. Joan Hollister

  • http://www.helenepowers.com Helene J. Powers

    My late husband’s music group used to come play for him while he was at the hospital, dealing w/ a rare bone marrow cancer. The nurses said they would have loved to make the group’s visits a regular event–it lifted everyone’s spirits.
    Music also played an unexpected and extremely moving role on what turned out to be Adam’s last day. He’d been home for two weeks and had just started Hospice, when a friend’s garland dancing group arrived. They danced and played music outside our living room where Adam rested. We opened the window for him to hear and described what the scene looked like. We think he felt it, especially as he was an incredible musician and dancer himself. Adam, at age 47, passed away peacefully just after the group finished playing and dancing. I will always be grateful for that incredible experience and the support I think it gave Adam to pass over to “the other side.”

  • Mmorrison528

    Hi Iam looking for a group of early alz patients and others who sing. My friend is a doctor and in early stages. He loves to sing and I am looking for things for him to be involved in. Reading is also something he likes to do.

  • Monica

    If someone felt led to sing in this choir,  where would they make contact?

  • Sherrard

    Kate, Do you know where I could find a choir to join in the Boston area…Newton would be fine too?

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