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  • Kayla Shafer, Founder, Music Therapist

Marlene's Story

You are my sunshine

One of the most common questions that I get after telling people that I am a music therapist is: "So, what do you DO?" This is a tricky question, because each session is so different, but I fully realize that no answer is more dissatisfying than, "It depends...."

Very often, the answer is best given in the form of a story, which I what I offer you here. Please note that this story is not based on a real patient but is a realistic fictionalization of what a true session may look like. Any similarities to actual persons or events are coincidental.

Setting: Assisted living facility, older adult, individual session, 4th Music Therapy session

Referral reason: Anxiety and decreased socialization related to COPD diagnosis

Feeling energized and ready for my day, I turn off the radio as I pull up to Marlene's building. I say hello to the other residents gathered in the common area playing cards. As I approach Marlene's apartment, I can already hear her morning game show turned up loudly on her television. I knock loudly so she can hear me and say, "Hi Marlene, it's Kayla, your music therapist!"

"Come on in, sweetie! I'm in the living room," she calls to me from her easy chair. This is where I have found Marlene for the past four weeks when I visit her on Thursday mornings. She doesn't get out of her room much anymore due to difficulty breathing and the anxiety that comes from it.

I set my guitar down next to the couch and take a seat. "I'm so glad to see you. How are you today?"

She looks for the remote and turns off the television before answering me. "I'm afraid today is not such a good day," she says with a soft, breathy voice.

"I'm sorry to hear that. Tell me about why today isn't a good day," I offer.

"Well, my kids promised they would visit last night for the family dinner we had downstairs, but the little one had a cold so they couldn't come. And I find myself just pacing around this little apartment going stir crazy," Marlene explains as she pulls a tissue apart in her lap, bit by bit.

"It sounds like you are disappointed you didn't get to see your family," I acknowledge.

She interjects immediately and says, "Oh, but I understand. I just miss my little grandson so much. He has so much to say these days!"

"He sure is adorable in these pictures. Does he like music as much as you do?" I ask as I point at a framed photo of her grandson, Alec.

"Oh yes, he just loves when I sing to him. He climbs up on my lap and snuggles with me and says, 'Grandma, sing!' I just get the biggest kick outta that, " she tells me, beaming.

"What do you sing to Alec?" I ask as I pick up my guitar.

"I like to sing him the songs that my mother sang to me. His favorites are Red River Valley and You Are My Sunshine." Marlene's hands are relaxed as she gazes out the window and thinks about her special memories with her mother and grandson.

I give her a moment before I ask, "Should we sing those songs now for your mother and for Alec?"

With the slightest glassiness to her eyes, she looks at me and quietly answers, "Yes."

Come and sit by my side if you love me

Do not hasten to bid me adieu

But remember the Red River Valley

And the cowboy that loved you so true.

We sing all four verses and transition directly into the next song. Her voice is clear and her breathing is well-supported and steady.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine

You make me happy when skies are gray

You'll never know dear how much I love you

Please don't take my sunshine away.

I sit quietly with Marlene for awhile as a tear runs down her cheek. She smiles as she looks at me and says, "Thank you."

"I know those songs are so important to you. How would you like to record them for Alec so he can have his Grandma singing to him anytime he wants?"

"We can do that?" she says, excitedly.

"Yes, we can! We can start on it today or wait until next week."

"Could my friend Evelyn play the piano while I sing? She plays so beautifully and we have been looking for a reason to get together."

"I think that is a great idea! Would you like to set that up with Evelyn for next week? I will bring recording equipment and I will reserve the lounge downstairs so we have a nice quiet place to make music and be together," I explain.

I see Marlene writing down her to-do items hurriedly. I can see the excitement in her actions and facial expressions.

"Should we think of other songs you might want to include on your recording?" I ask.

"Oh yes, I have lots of ideas!" she says as she starts naming other favorites of hers, her mother, and her grandson.


I feel excited for the next session with Marlene as I leave her. Through her love for music, she is connecting with her past, engaging with her friends, and communicating with others when she cannot physically be in the presence of those she loves.

That is what I do.


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