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Therapist tries to restore seniors’ dignity through music

DEKALB, Ill. >> Jen Conley still remembers her home phone number from growing up with her six siblings because her mother taught them to memorize the digits to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

“Music is a wonderful mnemonic,” Conley said. “You can’t often recite a poem from a decade ago, but if you hear a song from a long time ago, those lyrics all come back.”

Conley, 50, of DeKalb, is a music therapist and specializes in sessions for seniors, the dying and the ailing. She’s building her own private practice in Sycamore, and spends her days traveling to nursing homes, retirement communities and houses to play music for her clients, chat and offer her company. Since beginning her work as a music therapist in 1986, she’s worked with clients in hospice settings, with dementia and various forms of cognitive decline doing what she firmly believes is restoring their dignity.

“I love their presence and gentle dignity,” Conley said. “Sort of like how a song can be imbued with all sort of layers, meaning and emotion, in older adults, you look at them and they might be feeble, forgetful, don’t know family, or not presented in a way that they would have been comfortable as a younger adult.

“But I see it all,” she continued. “I see all that history, those stories, World War II, working in factories, providing for their generation, discovering technology. It’s them. They laid those roads. They paid for us. How beautiful for me to come in a small way and give back.”

To prepare for the hourlong sessions, Conley first will meet with the clients’ family member or caregiver to ascertain what level of care they need. She’ll learn whether the client has been self-isolating, has certain anxieties, what type of illness they have or how to encourage them to interact with those around them. For patients in hospice or with dementia, who are often nonverbal, sometimes she’ll go in the session and play the harp. She also plays keyboard and violin, and sometimes will use the time to just have a conversation.

“There’s things you can do with tone and whole notes that also induce relaxation,” Conley said. “If I have a client who’s having trouble with respiration or shallow breathing or in pain, I’m actually going to go in and not play music they know. I match my tempo with their respiration.”

Other clients, who are often more engaging, will want to hear music that invokes special memories, like her sessions with 100-year-old Phyllis McCormick, who meets with Conley regularly at her home at Oak Crest DeKalb Area Retirement Center.

McCormick and Conley sang and clapped together as Conley played tunes on her keyboard. For McCormick especially, therapy sessions allow her to reminisce about her late husband, John McCormick, who played the trombone in a dance band, the Melvin Elliot Band, from 1937 to 1942, until he enlisted in the Army.

“The music always makes me happy,” McCormick said. “It brings me back in time. I love those old songs. They bring the stories back to me, and I have a lot of stories.”

Conley grew up in Rockford and says at one point her family was known as the “Rockford von Trapps.” Her parents, Kathleen and Edward Jencks, instilled in her the magic of music from a young age, she said. Conley has continued the generational passion for music with her own daughters: Ellen Kauzlarich, a stay-at-home-mom who Conley calls a “wonderful harpist and vocalist,” and Nelle Conley, a grade school music teacher in Crystal Lake.

After earning her degree in counseling from the University of Ohio and spending 12 years in Cincinnati working as a music therapist, Conley decided to move back to her home state, where she’s been for the past 20 years.

For Conley, being able to show compassion to those who came before her is something she said is ingrained in her culture.

“Music is an integral part of who we are as human beings,” Conley said. “There’s no time, place or culture known throughout humanity where music has not been integral to our communal, ritual, interpersonal and emotional expressions.”

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