Bringing Therapeutic Harp to Those in Need

Should Compassion
be beyond anyone's

CompassionHarp uses both harp and voice to bring beauty and compassion to those in need through a prescriptive use of music.

Within a deeply felt, interpersonal relationship, the therapeutic musician is able to understand and respond to each unique and unfolding need.

Our mission is to bring this to people who would benefit but can not afford it.

Why CompassionHarp Exists

CompassionHarp was born from the experience of Jayne Demakos, when she first encountered low-income skilled nursing facilities. In the work that others and I do, we travel to many different facilities, constantly witnessing the huge disparity in the care and dignity one receives as an elder. The disparity is based upon one’s income. It’s like an informal caste system and given our culture’s aversion and fear of aging, some elders become quite neglected.

Social isolation is a profound issue at skilled nursing facilities for low-income residents; a problem that has become worse during the recent COVID pandemic. Family visitation has been limited and maintaining adequate staff is a challenge. There might be only two aides covering a 60-bed floor. Residents are kept relatively safe and clean. They are fed. The staff often shows immense care and love. But the resources to spend quality time with residents aren’t available

Here is one story: Nora was blind. Aides got her up in the morning and dressed her but she sat alone in her chair until the evening when they undressed her and put her to bed. Her human contact was limited to meals and toileting. But then, one day, there was music. Then there were smiles and then foot tapping. Nora would see the harpist and say, “Oh! My friend is here!”

Add the issue of Alzheimer’s and dementia and we have a double deep isolation. It takes so much time to really reach someone with these conditions. It’s especially hard for overworked staff. Naomi Feil, founder of the Validation Training Institute has worked for decades with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. She names the problem very well. “We have living dead people and this doesn’t need to be.” People are, too often, left alone to retreat deeper and deeper into themselves.

Music is a shortcut, a way in, a special kind of stimulant to help awaken. We all know this. We have witnessed it. There are films, studies, and research about it. We know it’s true—music can reach people. That’s why CompassionHarp exists.

This essay started with the challenging issue of elder care in our country, but we want to focus on something intimate and personal. Jayne regularly visited a resident at a skilled nursing facility; let's call her Barbara. When Barbara came to the facility about three years ago, she had dementia but was happy.

Over three years, her mental state eroded into a kind of paranoia. She was frequently upset, saying, “I’m afraid. Where are my children?” But when Barbara sings, she starts to focus and calm down. Jayne remembers, “She might take my hand and I can sit with her. The last time I saw Barbara she was very upset and confused. She would say things like ‘All the fathers are gathered in the corner.’ I said, ‘You’re upset.’ She answered, ‘Of course, I’m upset!’ When I asked, ‘Can I play my harp by you?’ she said something with the tone of ‘whatever.’ As I started singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, Barbara began singing with me despite her distress. Then I began to play Edelweiss. Startled, she turned to me and said, ‘It’s so beautiful!’”

“It’s so beautiful,” followed by tears. This reaction is a not uncommon experience when visiting with residents in long term care. Pamela remembers visiting with another woman, we’ll call her Linda. At the start of the visit Linda was tired but cheerful, happy to have the unusual experience of harp being played just for her in her room. Partway through a verse and chorus of I’ll Fly Away, Linda started weeping. Pamela quieted the music, asking, “Are you OK?” “Yes—it’s just so beautiful. I didn’t expect to have this reaction. I’m usually not so emotional. Please, please play some more.” Over the next 15 minutes, Linda released a lot of emotion—gratitude, wonder, sadness, and delight. “I didn’t know I needed this,” she said.

In hospice work, there’s something called, “breakthrough pain.” It’s what it sounds like: pain that arises even though there’s pain management in place. There are “breakthrough pain meds” to address it.

What happens with Barbara, Linda, and others can be thought of as, “breakthrough beauty.” Someone in the midst of emotional and mental anguish—or simple isolation and loneliness—can say, “It’s so beautiful” and “I didn’t know I needed this.” How is it that an experience of beauty can “break through” crisis and confusion? This is the wonder and magic of therapeutic music.

This is what CompassionHarp offers, moment by moment, person to person. We are interrupting loneliness, confusion, and suffering of elders who otherwise don’t have the means or access, by bringing beauty, the beauty of human companionship which we offer through our presence, through harp and voice.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his book Musicophilia, “I have seen deeply demented patients weep…as they listen to music…I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can and that dementia at least at these times is no bar to emotional depth. Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music can do the calling.”

What Is Therapeutic Harp?

Therapeutic Harp is a complementary medicine that offers music at the bedside of those facing physical, emotional, psycho-social and spiritual challenges. Neither entertainment nor a bedside performance, therapeutic music seeks healing rather than curing, and is recognized by both the local and national medical communities as an effective complementary medicine enhancing traditional and mainstream medicines.

“Music is part of being human.”

The Therapeutic Harpist and SInger creates an environment of peace and calm by which healing can unfold. For those who are impaired or ill, sensitively played and attentive live music can support breathing, reduce the experience of suffering around pain, aid in sleep and lessen anxiety.

It brings beauty and love to the heart and soul for the patients and family and friends. Often care givers will sit down and get a much needed rest while listening and often family and friends gather without the need to talk, just listening and ‘being with’ their loved one. Music can be wordless prayer and emotional support. Live music played intentionally with presence and care, creates ease allowing those at the end of life to ‘let go’ when the time comes.

“Music evokes emotion and emotion can bring its memory.”

In working with Elders, we find enjoyment, life and relationship through the experience of familiar music. Especially for those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, music can restore memories as evoked through particular songs. We have seen raised spirits, comfort in musical companionship, words of lyrics sung, whispered, with sometimes just lips moving with lyrics as people tap into the stream of music they loved. Feet and hands are often moving to the rhythm. Unfamiliar music is also played for Elders and we see a wide emotional range: Joy in rhythmic music; reflection and sometimes tears in more subdued music.

“I have seen deeply demented patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before and I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can … Once one has seen such response, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music and only music can do the calling”.

All quotes sourced from Oliver Sacks, neurologist, best selling author

Psychiatric Care and Therapeutic Harp

“I have felt tensions ease and depression lift.
The transformation that sometimes takes place
is quite remarkable.”
—Pamela Goddard

For several years, under the direction and with the support of Chaplain Tim Dean, Pamela has been making weekly visits to the Behavioral Services Unit (the locked, inpatient psychiatric area) at Cayuga Medical Center. After a lengthy pause in services due to COVID concerns and precautions, Therapeutic Harp made a very welcome return. It's a regularly scheduled part of mental health intervention activity.

The hospital staff in this unit is grateful for her services. They greet her with smiles when they see her walk in. They warmly welcome her presence because they hunger for what she brings: an open-hearted invitation for all to join in a calmer, quieter space where breathing is easier.

Some patients with mental health or behavioral problems are not easily reached. Their emotional overload can feel exhausting, compelling, internally directed, and achingly lonely.

While playing, Pamela calms her own breath, centers her own body, and focuses her own energy on the healing properties of sound. She becomes part of this community as she plucks the harp strings. Those in the unit respond in kind. The soothing music draws them out. Bodies quiet as they listen. Patients isolated in their own rooms open their doors to hear better. Staff take advantage of the shift in atmosphere by scheduling a creative arts session during this time.

Pamela reports that the work has been deeply gratifying and affecting for her. I’ve been given some extraordinary gifts in doing this work. People have shared deep conversations about music. Sometimes patients share their art work with me. I’ve had some really beautiful interactions.

We so grateful that this partnership between Cayuga Medical Center and CompassionHarp is valued and continues. With ongoing support from CompassionHarp, staff and patients are able to rely on professional services that so clearly offer healing benefits that augment medical care.


”The addition of Pamela and her elegant harp to therapeutic milieu has been invaluable. The patients enjoy the peaceful sounds and it stimulates conversation.”

—Melanie Novick, Nurse Practitioner, CMC Behavior Services Unit

“The impact Pamela has on our milieu for staff and patients when she joins us to play her harp is indescribable. The calming presence it has is felt by those sitting next to her or just walking by. Noticeably, people stop what they are doing to embrace the moment and reflect. Pamela has a unique sense of what the patients need and adapts how and what she plays based on the needs of the unit. I am amazed by the outcomes during her time on the unit that last well after she leaves. We are beyond grateful for this therapeutic component to our treatment.”

—Maureen Coats, Recreation Therapist, CMC Behavior Services Unit

“We support CompassionHarp because this music touches the soul. Regi’s parents were musicians and her mother, especially, found the music she loved (piano jazz) both stimulating and comforting near the end of her life. Judy’s father delighted in hearing his favorite old Italian songs while in hospice. Because we both have been deeply touched by music, we agree that we would find beauty and healing in the harp’s music in our illness, old age or passing. CompassionHarp is as close as one can get to “the music of the spheres.”

—Judy Saul and Reggie Teasley, donors

“I am glad to give you my reasons for donating to CompassionHarp. As the medical director at Hospicare I have seen first hand and also learned from our staff about the amazing effects that therapeutic harp can have on patients and their families as they traverse the complicated terrain of terminal illness. Patients and their kin who experience Jayne’s sensitive healing musical interaction have demonstrable relief emotionally and also physically, with lowered heart rate and blood pressure. Patients who live with dementia and are nonverbal sometimes respond to this music with new alertness and communication. Patients who are suffering find relief from their symptoms as they relax and enjoy the harp’s music. I think it can be as important a therapeutic modality as pharmacotherapy and psychological counseling.”

—Suzanne Anderson,MD

“My beloved wife suffered a stroke in April and when she was in the rehabilitation unit, Jayne came and shared a beautiful time of peaceful music which brought calm to a situation fraught with uncertainty, fear, and almost hopelessness. It’s amazing how harp music soothes the soul and calms the body.Thank you Jayne….”

—Rev. Robert McCune

“At Cayuga Nursing and Rehabilitation, therapeutic music offered by CompassionHarp practitioners has inspired joy, encouraged opportunities for sharing, socialization, and has developed a more cheerful outlook to daily life. The impact on our bed bound residents especially is so effective on increasing their well-being and quality of life.”

—Jon Eilers-Lloyd, Director of Recreation & Volunteer Services

”Watching Pamela play her harp for patients fills me with peace and awe. There is such love in the space she creates for us. Those listening feel the transcendent nature of this music as it connects us to each other and that which is beyond ourselves.

We had a patient here for many months who was in a lot of emotional distress. She had a cognitive impairment and limited speech. As Pamela played harp for her , I watched the stress lines in her face smooth out. I watched her lift her head towards the harp and watch Pamela with joy, and then I watched her hum along. In other rooms, where patients are actively dying, I have watched a comfort embrace the family surrounding their loved one as Pamela plays her beautiful music. Etched into my memory forever is the man alone in his hospital room, for whom music had been a life companion. Jayne came and played her harp for him, bringing all that he loved to him in grace in his final hours.

I am grateful to have Pamela and Jayne at Cayuga Medical Center with therapeutic compassion harp.”

—Tziona Szajman, Jewish Chaplain at CMC

“After today’s music, I have to write to tell you that some deep healing happened in me while I was listening and sleeping ~ a healing on a psychological and spiritual level.”

—hospice patient

“Mom had, had a difficult morning and needed oxygen and morphine. While [the harpist] played, Mom rested comfortable in her chair, her eyes were closed and a smile was on her face. The harp music helped to relax my mother and she looked so at peace.”

—family member

“After hearing you play I know why King David’s playing the harp was so comforting to King Saul. ..thank you for the therapy for both of us.”

—spouse of patient suffering from CHF

“With the help of [the] beautiful harp music, Mom peacefully passed. Those of us who were there truly believe that [this] music helped Mom pass. But, the music also helped our family members say goodbye in a calm and loving environment. …my hope is that all of us can pass in such a peaceful way.”

—family of hospice patient