Nobody wants to confront a need for hospice care — for themselves or a loved one. But it doesn’t have to be a somber decision.
Conversely, for Harriett Elton Elliott of Grand Rapids, it has fostered a fresh perspective. The 94-year-old quickly realized that death wasn’t imminent just because she joined the Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Hospice program in January 2021.
“As soon as you get into it, the attitude changes immediately,” said Elliott, who still lives on her own and receives her hospice care at home. She was diagnosed with liver cancer in March 2016.
Through Essentia Health, comprehensive hospice care is provided wherever the patient resides — nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and private residences. In Duluth, that also includes the Solvay Hospice House. Several resources are offered to treat the whole family and not merely the patient. Care teams are comprised of case manager registered nurses; social workers; home health aides; spiritual care and bereavement coordinators; physicians and nurse practitioners; volunteers; and music therapists.
Elliott is especially appreciative of that last component. She worked for close to 20 years at Essentia Health-Homestead, a nursing home in Deer River, and witnessed firsthand the power of music on the elderly. Elliott is a creative type who enjoys making things, such as the lap quilts she sews for chemo and other hospice patients. She also has “folders and folders” of poetry, according to Amber Bolstad, a board-certified music therapist with Essentia Health.
The first time the two met, Elliott was in a funk, isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolstad showed up with her guitar and sang some old-time songs with Elliott, allowing the latter to reminisce. Bolstad eventually turned one of Elliott’s poems into a song. The duo just completed a second song, one that Elliott hopes will be part of her legacy. It’s called “Unintentional Kindness” and embodies Elliott’s belief that “you should do the best you can to be kind.” It, too, stems from a poem penned decades ago.
“You just don’t know the difference some small thing you do is going to make,” Elliott continued. “That small thing may mean the world to the person you’re doing it for.”
Elliott, born Aug. 6, 1927, in Erhard, Minnesota, before moving to Deer River in 1933, has five children and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her positive outlook is unwavering, a trait she likely inherited from her mother and one she’s grateful to share by teaming with Bolstad in creating “Unintentional Kindness.” The two worked diligently to get the song just right.
“I think that music is giving her an outlet to share this message in a way that she hasn’t been able to before,” Bolstad said.
Bolstad plays myriad instruments, including the piano, harp, guitar, oboe and a range of percussion instruments. Her musical talents beautifully bring Elliott’s words to life.
“It’s very exciting. Amber wasn’t even going to put her name on it, even though she wrote the music. I said, ‘Put your name on there,’ ” Elliott joked.
In her job, Bolstad has seen how music can knock down barriers and form a connection with people of all ages. She alluded to a study that showed levels of the stress hormone cortisol were reduced by singing. It really can put people at ease.
Elliott’s son, Chuck, remembers hearing about the impact music had on residents when his mother worked at the nursing home.
“It’s like a spark that, when nothing else worked, when nothing else was clicking, music would snap them back,” Chuck recalled. “She’s just been so thrilled with the hospice program in general, but especially the music therapy.”
The Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Hospice program is locally based, with members of the care team available 24/7. The frequency of visits from the care team is determined by each individual’s need. Above all, the focus is on comfort and quality of life.
Volunteers instrumental in hospice care
Elliott expressed an affinity for the volunteers who play such vital roles in hospice care. She received much-needed social support from a volunteer who connected with her frequently over the phone when COVID restrictions were in place, and now makes in-person visits as well.
“Hospice volunteers are an important part of our team,” said Robbie Radaich, volunteer supervisor for Grand Rapids-based Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Hospice Itasca. “They are people in our community willing to share their time and talents to support our patients and their families. Essentia Health hospice volunteers receive training, which allows them to provide compassionate care while they are visiting patients, helping with errands or making support phone calls.”
Radaich says some volunteers help around the office, and military veteran volunteers provide a special “We Honor Veterans” recognition ceremony to our veteran patients. Volunteers supply additional care and attention that helps our team more completely meet the needs of hospice patients and families.
Volunteers are always needed. To learn more about joining Essentia’s hospice team, call (218) 327-8780.