Music to Soothe the Soul

Hospice Peterborough’s Bedside Singers Reach Out to Palliative Patients  

By Melodie McCullough 


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Singers left to right: Martha Comfort, Anne Campbell, Julie Stoneberg, Judy Foster

It is a gift for both the ones receiving and the ones giving. 

For the past seven years, a group of Hospice Peterborough, Ontario, volunteers have been singing at bedsides in the palliative care unit at Peterborough Regional Health Centre or in people’s homes to bring comfort and solace to the dying. 

“It’s not something everyone can do, and it’s not always easy,” said volunteer Kate Jarrett, who has been with the Bedside Singers since the program began. “But it is an honour for us to go in and be present and surround that bedside.” 

“The experience is very powerful and very moving,” she continued. “We don’t get much of an opportunity to make a strong or lasting connection, but music speaks to people on so many different levels. It’s a service, not a performance. They don’t have to sit up and respond. We want the songs to just wash over them and let them feel whatever they need to feel.” 

At the moment there are 11 singers, all women, who have all taken Hospice volunteer training. Four singers at a time sing at the hospital twice monthly with a repertoire of sacred and secular songs, along with meditative chants, explained Paula Greenwood, volunteer co-ordinator at Hospice Peterborough, which provides grief counselling and support. They will also sing in homes, if asked. 

“Music evokes such memories and emotions. The patients may sing along. They’re mostly familiar tunes,” she said, “and it can be very moving to watch. It’s transformative for the patients, actually, as they relax and just listen. It’s an area of our programming that will probably grow as we grow.” 

“I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Ontario right now that offers this service in a hospice, so we’re very proud of our group. They’re wonderful, wonderful people, and they make pretty music.” 

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Singers left to right: Julie Stoneberg, Anne Campbell, Sylvia Robinson, Cecilia Simmons

Jarrett became involved with Hospice Peterborough after her mother died in a hospice setting in Cambridge, Ontario 

“The experience I had with hospice care as my mom was dying helped me understand what a good death was, and I realized so many of us are afraid of death,” she said.  “To be with a loved one as they are actively dying is an opportunity to try and understand that fear. And to be able to bring music into that space is a gift indeed,” she said.  

She wanted to give back to the Peterborough centre, and was pleasantly surprised to learn about bedside singing programs in hospices in the United States. Hospice Peterborough was very open to adding it to their service offerings,and so the Bedside Singers were formed, Jarrett said. While she doesn’t have formal music training, she has a background in folk music and is a member of a number of different local choirs. 

As Hospice volunteers, the singers bring to the bedside compassion, sensitivity and awareness of the issues surrounding those who are living with life-threatening illnesses or are dying. There have been many tender moments they have witnessed. 

“There are people you see who do not seem attentive at all and their eyes are closed, but then you’ll see their hand or foot start to move along in response to the music. If the family sees this, it’s a very beautiful moment because they know this is reaching their loved one on a deeper level. In some small way, we’ve touched them.” 

Jarrett said the bedside singing is a work-in-progress, as the singers continue to learn from patients and families what works and what doesn’t. 

“Music reaches out to the dying in ways we can’t necessarily see, but if our singing can provide something that soothes, calms or delights even for a brief moment, that’s all that matters.” 

 Hospice Peterborough, 439 Rubidge St., has met most of its “Every Moment Matters” campaign goal to build a new 10-bed hospice building in the city. It hopes to break ground this summer and see it open in late 2017 or 2018.  

 To contact Hospice Peterborough call 705-742-4042 or visit its website at 


Categories: Community, Music, Uncategorized

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