A SOUND OPPORTUNITY: Impacting our environments towards wellbeing

For the past two years, I've been providing musical healing services to skilled nursing facilities by singing to patients confined to their beds. Many of them are severely incapacitated, often in final weeks of life. While I am grateful for the blessings that attend this good work, I am also continually dismayed by the toxic sounds that greet me as I make my rounds. Outdoor lawn mowers and blow machines roar into patients' rooms from gardeners working outside several feet away; while televisions blast daytime dramas to the tune of powerful vacuum cleaners and people hollering in the hallways.

That these environmentally polluting sounds are considered normal in our daily lives is puzzling and disturbing in and of itself, but it's appalling when transferred to the sensitive ears and nervous systems of traumatized or very ill, elderly, even terminal patients held 'sound captives' in nursing home quarters.

I recall last week coming into a room where two men lay bedridden. Neither can speak, hooked up to respirators that burp continual high pitched beeps -- a potentially nerve wracking noise to a sound sensitive like myself. Additionally, the older of the two men shakes uncontrollably much of the time from tremors, accompanied by agitated cries.. His young roommate lies in a silent stupor, facing the agonized contortions. I can only wonder what a hellish inner world he may be inhabiting in spite of standardized health care ministrations. Meanwhile, hired by a compassionate program director, I sang and lulled at their bedsides, a kindly, distraught bandaid.

The noises certainly are not intentional mistreatment. They're part of an invisible, systemic illness our culture breeds: an inattention to noise pollution, a failure to register it as such because it is sanctioned as 'normal' sounds (perhaps not unlike the constant, stressful chatter in our heads?!) For those of us with natural or acquired sensitivity to sounds, each day is potentially a challenge from the 'normal' world around us.

Aside from the emotional or psychological impact of noise, science has demonstrated that sounds affect more than our ears. Sound impacts our skin surfaces just like touch does, affecting moods and our sense of well being (or lack there of). Two nurses talking loudly to one another over the bed of woman who doesn't hear so well, may never guess that their ward might well still register a shrill, coarse or robotic voice as she lies there while they change her diaper or wipe the drool. We can thank these nurses for performing messy jobs no one likes a lot. Yet, the way they speak carries a message all its own, a vibe that can make or break a patient's morning just through the "energetic" impact.

What can we do about insensitivity? Isn't it a circular problem? How do we crawl inside of someone's body or skin to know what kinds of sounds hurt them? And what can be done about the gardener needing to do his job outside? Or the fact that a hearing impaired man who wants his tv on is in a semi private room with someone who cannot speak who does not want the tv on? Do we close all the semi private room doors to close off the shrieks of another in pain?

To begin to find solutions, we need a humble start, perhaps by just noticing more mindfully the sounds that accompany our day: outside, inside, theirs, my own.. Take a pulse: which ones have no charge for me at all? Which are negative, which are positive? What can I alter either externally, or internally to soothe, uplift or otherwise take care of myself? Sounds can soothe, uplift, reassure, comfort or energize us. Others reek havoc, contribute to dis-ease, delay or inhibit healing, preventing wellness

Now, extend this caring awareness to others around you. If they are ill, depressed, or sensitive due to old age -play detective to discover what kinds of sounds have what kinds of results. When in doubt, err or the side of kindness and gentleness. In hospital rooms, diminish the Jerry Springer cock fights, even some soaps or Judge Judy bickering fare: it does NOT help the healing process, in nearly every case. IS there a program or kind of music that assists their well being?

Certainly, too, our voices are a bastion of welcome possibilities when we remember to speak from our hearts. Loving kindness appeals, modulating pacing, timber, tone, pitch and resonance, naturally. Apply the golden rule: if you were to trade positions with the person in question, what can you imagine would be the most optimal communication?

And what of the sound of silence? Constant stimulation is never recommended. A lovely quietude is itself a godsend. Our inner landscapes grow healthy and naturally beautiful when given tranquility and room to flourish. It may be essential to inner end of life process, as well.

As a final hopeful thought, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein tells us in the wonderful song, "Oh What A Beautiful Morning," that "all the sounds of the earth are like music." Perhaps as hearts open completely, even cacophony may have poetic beauty.

Published in Don Koepke's "Spirit of Aging" online newsletter in 2006.