A hospice ministry in music

Delaware Hospice chaplain A'Shellarien Anthony sings with Charles Black at his Wilmington home. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff
Delaware Hospice chaplain A'Shellarien Anthony sings with Charles Black at his Wilmington home. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff (Delaware Hospice)
Posted: April 05, 2012

When a man is old and dying, a hymn he learned as a child in Kentucky's coal country and sang on Sundays his whole life is more than a simple song. It is an emotional hot-wire to a time when health and hope could be taken for granted. It's a connection to God and community. It's a way to express gratitude for each new day.

Charles Black and A'Shellarien Anthony have learned that it is also a way for two people who have little else in common to become friends.

Anthony, 39, a New Jersey native, is a chaplain for Delaware Hospice and an associate pastor with Mount Tabor A.M.E. Church in North Philadelphia. Black, 86, grew up in Kentucky, went to school in Kansas, and worked for DuPont for 36 years as a civil engineer. Beset with Parkinson's disease, dementia, congestive heart failure, anemia, and normal pressure hydrocephalus, he has been getting home hospice care on and off for two years, and Anthony has been his chaplain. Black's wife, who was also one of Anthony's patients, died in June.

Doris Black didn't like singing. After her death, her husband and Anthony discovered they both were Baptists and loved some of the same hymns. He told her how much he missed going to church. Anthony's weekly visits grew longer and became a time for reminiscence, Bible study, and singing.

On a recent Friday at his house, they launched into "Love Lifted Me": "I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. . . ."

His voice was deep and mostly on key. Hers was soft and high. She followed his enthusiastic lead, never overpowering. There was something sweet and genuine about them. He basked in the attention that she freely gave.

At the chorus, they found their footing: "Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, love lifted me."

"Very good," she said. In no time, he was starting "The Old Rugged Cross," and she was singing along.

Music is, of course, central to many ministries, and hospice chaplains often sing to patients. Delaware Hospice, which serves 700 families a day, has about a dozen chaplains, and all sing occasionally, but Anthony and another chaplain, who totes a guitar on the job, have made music central to their work - if clients like it.

Susan Lloyd, president and CEO of the hospice, said that, although she didn't seek out singing chaplains, she did look for people with creative approaches. Seeing how singing has helped chaplains comfort and connect with patients has made her want to incorporate more singing into the company's chaplain service.

"This is an area we probably will look to expand over time," she said. "It brings a whole level of care and comfort that we hadn't really thought of before."

As hospice becomes more common, the idea of a chaplain singing in your home may seem less strange. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, 1.6 million people received hospice care in 2010, up from 1.3 million in 2006.

On average, Medicare pays hospices about $150 a day per patient. They are required to have a multidisciplinary team that includes a nurse, aide, social worker, bereavement counselor, and chaplain. Extras, like a music therapist, would have to come out of that budget, or hospices could seek a special grant.

Terre Mirsch, administrator of Holy Redeemer Hospice, said the value of music as a therapeutic tool has been getting more attention than in the past. Her program makes a point of including alternative treatments like massage and aromatherapy.

Music helps with "life review" - a favorite old song will almost certainly trigger a story - and it soothes people who are often anxious and uncomfortable. "It breaks the fight-or-flight response," Mirsch said.

Claire Fore, a former nun who works as a chaplain for Holy Redeemer, said she realized that music could change her own mood and has used it more and more with clients. She sings and plays an instrument called a QChord Digital SongCard Guitar. As soon as she starts to play, she said, "the facial expression changes. ... The body changes. ... I've had patients say to me they feel like they're in heaven."

Sheriden Black, Charles Black's daughter and primary caregiver, wasn't sure what to expect when she heard of the chaplain's meetings with her father. "I just always think of last rites," she said.

She's happy that Anthony can listen to her father's old stories with enthusiasm. Sheriden Black thinks her father is a little lonely. It's too big a production to get him to church most Sundays. Anthony's visits, she said, "give him something to look forward to, and I think it lifts his spirits." She added: "I can't tell you how much better it makes me feel to know my dad's spiritual needs are being met."

Anthony's unusual spiritual background makes it easier for her to work with people of different faiths. She started out in an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Then her parents converted to Judaism. She went to synagogue for years, but returned to the A.M.E. church at 15. She's had training in Pentecostal, Baptist, and A.M.E. ministry. She has also written a book about "how to love people who are difficult to love," titled Does Love Cover That?

On that recent afternoon, Black and Anthony learned a new song. They recited the books of the Old Testament in unison, from Genesis to Malachi. Black told Anthony about delivering the Harlan Daily Enterprise from his bicycle, finding a quarter as a kid and spending it all on candy, and serving as a volunteer helping people during floods.

She smiled and prodded him with questions.

For her visit to Black's well-appointed home in Wilmington, she wore a shiny blouse, gold high-heeled shoes, and a necklace with a big cross on it. He wore dark pants with white socks and a cardigan with a Delaware Emergency Management Agency volunteer insignia.

Things between them had gotten off to a precarious start. He surprised her when they met by asking if he should call her colored or African American, but that was long behind them.

He told her he had sung two songs in adult day care that week. "I sang 'I was sinking deep in sin,' because I like the part about love in it."

"Me, too," she said. "That's my favorite hymn."

He also sang "The Old Rugged Cross."

"Did they like it?" she asked. "Did they give you a standing ovation?"

"No," he said, "but they all clapped."

Later he told her, "It makes me very proud that you have blessed me with your thoughts and your friendship, and it means a lot for me to share my life and stories with someone who pays attention to them and seems to be interested in me."

"I'm honored that God trusts me with you," she replied. "It's the highlight of my week to come here and sing with you. Some of my other patients don't like to sing."

Sometimes, Black and Anthony talk about whether he is ready for death. Anthony said it was a wonderful thing to travel with someone "the whole journey," but also sad. "It's a blessing to be in that sacred space, but at the same time, there's a lot of entering and exiting," she said delicately. "Being a chaplain is a heavy job. You carry not only your sorrow, but the patient's sorrow."

After his wife died, and he and Anthony began singing, Black started a new morning ritual. When he awakens, he reaches over to the spot where his wife used to lie so he can feel her presence. Then he sings a song of gratitude for his new day.

He likes the "Doxology," he told Anthony. They sing that one together, too. It starts with, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," and ends with, "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen."

Contact Stacey Burling

at 215-854 4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.

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