Choir brings comfort to palliative care patients and families

Cape Breton Comfort Choir

As the soothing sounds of Sting’s Fields of Gold fill the hallway, a small crowd gathers to listen to the volunteer choir that is singing in the foyer outside An Cala, the palliative care unit at Cape Breton Regional Hospital. The singers are members of the Cape Breton Comfort Choir, the first palliative care choir in Nova Scotia.

While the choir is only newly formed, it began as an idea that member Nicky Duenkel had 10 years ago. 

“Singing has always been healing for me and I just thought when I’m at the end of my life and it’s my turn, I would want someone singing to me,” she says. 

A decade later, Duenkel set out to make her idea a reality. She contacted people she knew who liked to sing and pitched the idea to them. In no time, the choir had nine members. Because the members wanted to volunteer their talents to patients, they worked with Lisa McNeil-Campbell, volunteer resources consultant; Jill Murphy, music therapist and others in Nova Scotia Health Authority’s palliative care service to develop a program. 

“The main goal of music therapy in palliative care is to improve the quality of life for the individual,” says Murphy. “It gives them something to focus on and helps alleviate their fears or anxieties as well as their perception of pain. Music is expressive and it can help patients communicate and express how they are feeling. It also provides comfort and support to the families as they are part of the patient’s journey, too.”

For choir member Joella Foulds, the connection between palliative care and music is a personal one. 

“When my mother was dying, I would sing to her,” she says. “I was able to sing to her as she peacefully slipped away. To be able to do that brought us so much comfort and healing.”

Fellow choir member Sue MacKenzie echoes that sentiment.

“It’s hard to know what to do when someone is palliative but this is something we can do, it’s something I can do to make things easier for the patients, families and staff during a difficult time for them,” she says. “Singing is a way of giving back.”

Murphy accepts referrals for the choir then provides the choir with any information they need, including the patient’s physical and spiritual needs and the type of music a patient enjoys. The choir then chooses and tailors their songs to best meet the patient’s needs. Songs are comforting and peaceful and can include spiritual songs, popular or folk music and Cape Breton songs. The choir sings in smaller groups of three or four in a patient’s room but also sings monthly for patients, families, unit staff, volunteers and any others who’d like to sit and listen in An Cala’s kitchen. 

In the foyer outside An Cala, the choir closes with Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken. Heads bob among those listening. Some patients sing along, others sway to the music. Loved ones hold hands, giving a gentle squeeze as the song comes to an end. A round of applause echoes in the foyer along with a chorus of “thank you” and “that was beautiful” from patients and their families. The choir thanks them for listening and enjoying the music. 

“Singing for those at the end of life can be a heart-opening gift, helping to ease fears and bring peace to the patient, family members and caregivers as well as those who are singing,” says Duenkel. “For every note we sing, we feel as deeply blessed as those for whom we sing.” 

CB Comfort Choir - Morning Has Broken from Nova Scotia Health Authority on Vimeo.