Choir prepares to comfort the sick and dying

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Pam Espinosa, director of the Fort Wayne Area Threshold Singers, leads the newly formed group in rehearsal at the Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center at Visiting Nurse. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

FORT WAYNE — Threshold Choirs offer comfort through song at the bedside of the sick and dying, and a new chapter is forming in Fort Wayne.

Threshold Choir started in 2000 in California, and now has more than 150 chapters throughout the world. The local group will be led by Pam Espinosa, who moved to Fort Wayne about two years ago from Massachusetts.

Espinosa, a breast cancer survivor, remembers when she first learned about the group in a magazine article.

“I was in my doctor’s office thinking I was having a recurrence,” she said. “I was very anxious, and I just opened a magazine and I turned to this page and I read about this group.”

The concept resonated with Espinosa, who has sang in some capacity her entire life and comes from a musical family.

“I kind of made a pact with God in that moment and said, ‘If I’m okay and this isn’t a recurrence, I’m going to try to make this happen,’” she said.

She kept up her end of the deal, starting the first Threshold Choir in the Boston area in 2007.

The choir sings at bedsides only when invited. Members sing in groups of two to four in soft “lullaby voices” for 20-30 minutes.

Before a session, a patient’s caregiver fills out an intake form so that the choir can learn about the patient’s preferences. The secular group’s repertoire includes rounds, chants, lullabies, hymns, spirituals and classic choral music, as well as requests from clients like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Threshold Choirs sing simple, comforting songs to sick and dying patients at the bedside like this song titled “Walking Each Other Home.” BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

“We’re all going to make the journey at some point, so I think if we can make it less scary and just comfort someone along the way, it can be a beautiful thing,” Espinosa said.

Since moving to Fort Wayne about two years ago, she has wanted to start a chapter here. Then, one day she took her dog to a veterinary clinic on Homestead Road and noticed a sign for the Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center on the Visiting Nurse campus.

Visiting Nurse, a nonprofit that provides end-of-life and palliative care, will serve as a home base for the Fort Wayne Area Threshold Singers with Visiting Nurse music therapist Emily Paar fielding referrals when the choir is ready to start making bedside visits in six to nine months.

Music therapy is goal oriented, Paar explained. It can be used to target pain or anxiety management, provide emotional support, comfort support, family support, spiritual support and more.

“Music can touch so many different aspects of somebody’s life, so it’s really natural that we can address many goals at the same time,” she said.

Threshold Choirs play a different role with the objective to simply provide comfort through song — not to provide therapy, spiritual support or patient care.

Parr sometimes gets referrals from caregivers of patients who don’t necessarily have a clinical need for music therapy, but would enjoy music at the bedside. In this situation, she might refer the patient to the Threshold Choir.

The Fort Wayne Area Threshold Singers began rehearsing in February. They meet twice a month to rehearse for two hours. There are no auditions, but members must be able to carry a tune, learn to hold their own part, blend their voice with others and communicate kindness with their voice.

Julie Shackley, who joined the newly formed group for its first rehearsal, said that when she heard about the choir, she immediately knew she wanted to get involved.

“It fit like a glove for me,” she said.

Shackley, who recently retired from a career in sales, was looking for an opportunity to serve and she had experience singing in a church choir.

“The most difficult challenge for me is to learn how to sing quietly,” she said.

Shackley, who has cared for and visited loved ones at the end of their lives, said that the experience has changed her outlook on beauty.

“It cuts through a lot of illusion that society puts on us about beauty when you start interpreting life through people’s hearts,” she said.

Espinosa said that Visiting Nurse will help prepare the choir for what they might experience at the bedside of patients who are sick or dying.

To learn more about Threshold Choirs, visit thresholdchoir.org. For information about joining the Fort Wayne Area Threshold Singers, contact Pam Espinosa at fwtsingers@gmail.com or call (260) 232-2526.