When Pippa Downs met Jennifer Franks for the first time, the two women had no idea they already shared a similar experience that would change them forever.
Downs, a Wheaton resident and cellist since childhood, learned about the power of music when she used her talent several years ago to soothe her stepfather on his deathbed.
Franks, the life enrichment director at Wynscape Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation in Wheaton, witnessed music's therapeutic effects last year during a resident's death.
Neither could imagine their careers would someday intersect and their common ground would help shape a program that now transforms how dozens of Wynscape residents experience the final moments of their lives.
"This is about the idea that we need to do better at end of life," Wynscape Administrator Aimee Musial said. "Our residents need to have the same experience at the end of the life that they had throughout."
A way to help
Pippa Downs lost her father when she was 16. Since she had already been a musician for more than a decade, her family felt she should perform at his funeral. Years later, she would face another death when her stepfather's heart began to fail.
"The day he was dying, we knew he was right near the end," Downs said. "He lived in Michigan, so my mom called and asked if I would play the cello over the phone speaker. He was unconscious, but we still believe he heard what I played. And it was good to be able to feel like I helped in some way near the end."
Just last year, Jennifer Franks befriended Helen, one of newest residents to join Wynscape.
Helen formerly resided in an independent living community.
Now she was bucking against her new life at Wynscape, even though her declining health demanded extra nursing care.
"It was a loss of pride to a degree," Franks said.
Soon Helen was dying, and her family could not arrive in time to share her last moments.
Helen's son feared his mother might die alone, Franks said, so she and her colleagues surrounded her with extra care.
One staffer added an extra touch, playing a CD of Helen's favorite music and assuring her it was OK to let go.
And then she did.
Franks said that moment was unlike any she had witnessed in more than a decade at Wynscape.
"It was the most beautiful experience I had," Franks said. "She didn't die alone, and she died with pride. It was dignified."
The light bulb
Franks and Downs crossed paths early last year when Downs dropped off fliers at nursing homes throughout DuPage County. As a freelance musician for years, she said the recession dried up much of her work at weddings and corporate events, with people choosing DJs or organists over orchestra trios.
So she began to advertise at area nursing homes with offers to perform for groups during special events. Soon, she was hired to play monthly at Wynscape, as well as Windsor Park Manor in Carol Stream, Clare Oaks in Bartlett, and other similar facilities.
This past winter, Downs played a holiday concert for her new Wheaton audience. But meanwhile, a staff member's mother was dying in a room nearby and Franks wanted to help the woman, an avid music lover, with the process.
"She was breathing fast, she was struggling," Franks said. "Pippa asked what she wanted to hear and, as soon as she started to play, the woman just relaxed. Her breathing slowed. And at that point a light bulb went on in my head."
Downs' compassionate performance for the dying woman could not have come at a better time. Franks and her administrator, Aimee Musial, both realized it fit perfectly with a new program being developed at Wynscape called Bridges.
Leaders from each department at Wynscape annually choose a goal that affects resident care or quality of life. Then they work toward that goal as a team.
"We wanted something that impacted resident and staff satisfaction," Musial said. "It could have been anything, really, and we struggled to agree for several months."
First, Helen's death helped spark the idea of making death a more dignified experience. Next, a member of the dietary staff spoke up, noting funeral homes typically took residents who died through a back door near the kitchen and trash bins. She wondered if there could be a more respectful process, Musial said.
So Bridges was launched and staff members began building initiatives that, Musial says, "celebrate the life of our residents."
Changes included posting a photo of a cherry blossom on the door of someone who is near death, so residents and staff know to be sensitive and attentive -- especially to visiting families -- when approaching the room. After a death, Wynscape announces a "Celebration of Life," where staff and residents may share a moment of silence at the bedside.
"It increases sensitivity so people in the building know something very emotional is going on," Musial said.
Wynscape staff also changed their process for transporting residents who died. Today, they broadcast an announcement in the building that an escort will occur, so staff members from every department may attend. Then, former patients are covered with a handmade blanket, and the funeral home director takes them through the building's front door.
The most recent addition to the program is Downs and her cello. Patients who are dying, or struggling with severe pain or anxiety, or who rarely leave their room, may ask her to perform.
Downs said she finds the performances both rewarding and cathartic, helping her work through grief from her own father's death that she stifled as a teen.
"It always brings a whole rush of memories through, a mix of emotions," she said.
Downs continues to play group shows, and Franks said her popularity grows through those performances, as well as through word-of-mouth about her private audiences.
Her cello, too, helps spread the word when residents hear it in their rooms.
Both Franks and Musial said her music has become so popular, they often play her CD during meal times.
Franks and Musial said the music is ultimately bringing comfort to everyone at Wynscape, and they are proud it is part of a program the staff built from scratch.
"It is very fulfilling for me to feel like I can provide some type of peace and comfort," Downs said.
"Especially if people are Christians and believe they are passing on and going to heaven. Then I feel happy for them and feel joy that they will be at peace soon."