SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Taylor Kersey, a board certified music therapist at Hospice Savannah has always loved music. 

“I’ve been a musician since I could walk and babble as a baby. Growing up it was the way that I connected with my parents and my grandparents,” she said.

As she got older, it helped her to get through being an adolescent. 

“It’s how I made sense of all the crazy teenage emotions that you have when you’re growing up. My stepdad was in the hospital when I was in high school. He had brain surgery and there was a music therapist,” said Kersey. “I had always known I wanted to do something with music and the music therapist had set up in the hallway and was playing their violin, my mom was like, ‘This would be really cool for you.’ so after that, I had kind of just decided, as a sophomore in high school, that was I wanted to be, that is what I wanted to do and I just stuck with it.”

(Left) Laura McKinnon, (Center) Taylor Kersey (Right) Betsy Kammerud. (Photo by Hollie Lewis)

Music Therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music therapy interventions can address a variety of healthcare & educational goals.

Today, through referrals from doctors, nurses, certified nursing assistants, and caregivers, she is able to connect with patients with music therapy every other week or more, who have six months or less to live and plays music that range from jazz to country to gospel style using not only her voice, but the guitar or piano as well.

“It really depends on what each individual is interested in and what they want. I normally go off of what the patient tells me, but if they can’t, their loved one or caregiver, this could be a friend or a CNA or someone who spends a significant amount of time with them and is able to tell me can tell me what kind of music they like.”

Betsy Kammerud, Manager of Hospice Savannah’s Full Circle Grief and Loss Center said, “Music therapy is geared mostly towards serving our patients and following the care plan of the patient. So, if the patient is agitated or in pain or needs social support, something like that, then music therapy can go out and provide interventions that help with those issues.”

In order to qualify for services, a doctor has to certify a person as having six months or less to live and are considered to be at the end of life.

“Hopefully we have enough time to work with the patients and with the families and add quality of life to their life, including music therapy, which I think is a huge part. Some of them though, we do get when they are actively dying and music therapy can still help because they can provide music that is meditative and relaxing and help that transition be peaceful,” said Kammerud.

An example of the work that Kersey does is meditative music, particularly with patients who are agitated. She produces a musical program where the music will first match the patient’s agitation, she then brings the music down and as she does, the patient’s agitation comes down.

Artists and songs most requested from patients include not only metal music but also a variety of others.

“Anything by Allan Jackson. Any and all Allan Jackson songs, especially here in the south. Johnny Cash, lots of gospel, “Country Roads”, “Moon River” by Johnny Mercer is a big one, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “A Bushel and a Peck,” said Kersey.

“Music is one of our first memories. It’s a lot of times, one of the first languages we actually learn because our mothers, our grandmothers are singing to us. So, there is a powerful emotional connection to what music is in our hearts, in our souls.” said Kammerud.

Some of the patients they care for haven’t spoken in months, however, during a music therapy program, it can all change for the patients and their loved ones.

“A lot of times they’re smiling but they’re crying because it’s so moving to hear their loved one’s voice again. It’s all these little things like the sound of the voice, the touch, things like that, that we lose sometimes at the end of life. So to be able to elicit that sort of reaction from someone, that’s why it’s that first language. As you’re losing at so many things sometimes that can be brought back by the power of music,” said Kammerud

A brick in honor of Jean S. Kaminsky. The Kaminsky family sponsors Full Circle’s Camp Aloha, a grief camp for children ages 6-17 years of age. (Photo by Hollie Lewis).

Hospice Savannah also has a Pediatric Hospice Care service for infants and children of all ages with a life-limiting diagnosis. They too are offered music therapy.

“I use a lot of smaller hand-held instruments. They’re more colorful, more directed towards children. I do tend to play guitar with them more, or sometimes even the ukulele, just something a little smaller scaled and easier to move around with. It depends on the functioning of the child. A lot of times they are not able to hold on to instruments or interact in a way that you would see someone else, or an adult react. So, a lot of times it’s just soothing. You don’t want to overstimulate the babies because that could put them in distress.” said Kersey.

Hospice Savannah is the region’s largest and oldest legacy nonprofit hospice serving Chatham County, Effingham County, Liberty County and Bryan County. They offer a comprehensive array of programs and services that include the healing arts of massage, music and story keeping

Laura McKinnon, director of development and marketing for Hospice Savannah said, “Recently we’ve also added virtual reality which like music, helps patients control anxiety, control pain and gives an opportunity for families to bond at end of life, it gives them memories to cherish. It’s pretty remarkable in that we are the only hospice in this region that provides that level of quality of life care for our patients.

She continued, “We do the same standard things that all hospices do, home care being that primary focus, but we’re unique in that we have our inpatient unit on Eisenhauer that allows for people with a higher level of acuity to be cared for and allows for respite care, but it’s those things like music therapy that really sets us apart and really demonstrates to our community that we are caring for the whole person in a very holistic way, I think that’s a very important differentiator.”