When Sister Jeanine Vermette retired from the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, she chose to continue living out her vocation by helping others and doing charitable work. “I thought I could be of use to seniors,” she explains.
Sister Jeanine approached Actionmarguerite St. Boniface with an idea for a pilot project in music therapy. She regularly visits residents with her harp and plays songs from their youth. “The activity coordinator calls me when she can’t be there for an activity, and I adjust my schedule so I can replace her.”
To prepare for the pilot project, Sister Jeanine studied harp therapy for seniors. “I already play four instruments but I wanted something gentler. The harp seemed like the best option because the sound is peaceful. Two years ago I took a course on how to play the instrument and use it to create a calming effect for residents.”
During the activity, which has already drawn up to 20 participants in a single session, Sister Jeanine plays and sings in English and French, with the residents following along. “I like the interaction. The vibration of the strings has a soothing effect. When people are in the room, they’re always very calm. It makes them happy and does them good to remember the songs they used to sing when they were little.”
Sister Jeanine also visits residents with dementia. They don’t necessary remember lyrics but they do remember melodies. “It’s beautiful to see their reactions and how their memories return. It stimulates their memories. They’re small things, but important ones.”
The harpist also gives of her time to provide spiritual care at St. Boniface General Hospital, to end-of-life patients who need music to calm themselves. “One time I played for an older gentleman who was dying, and I could see tears running down his cheeks. He told me, ‘I’m so surprised that you started with that piece, it’s my favourite song.’ That opened a door and he started telling me about his life. He’d been a pilot. He was very thankful that I’d come to see him. When he died, his wife asked me to play at his funeral.”
During the music therapy sessions, Sister Jeanine takes time to connect the songs to the lives of her participants. She knows all of them by their first name. “It’s important to try to make those connections, to get them talking about their lives, the trips they’ve taken. For example, there are several nuns at Actionmarguerite St. Boniface, so I like to include hymns because I know they know them.”
The musician also runs the Music and Memory pilot project. “I put music on an iPod. The participants have headsets. We listen together and it brings back memories that we can then talk about.”