Meet the harpist soothing elderly care ward patients

Meet the harpist soothing elderly care ward patients

24 July 2023

Mary Reid is an accomplished harpist who has performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As part of our Arts Engagement Programme, she’s been visiting the elderly care wards at St Mary’s Hospital to treat patients to the calming sound of her strings. In this blog, she shares how she got involved with the charity and how the visits are making a difference.

I’ve had experience in care settings since 2015 when I started working with Live Music Now (LMN) and the Concordia Foundation in cancer wards across London. I'm so grateful for the experiences and training I gained through the many years with these organisations, and I still do residencies in dementia care homes through LMN with a folk singer.

I first got involved with Imperial Health Charity in April 2020. As a mostly unemployed performing musician I had a lot of time on my hands due to the pandemic. I started as a Crisis Response Volunteer at St Mary’s Hospital and also trained as a vaccinator with St John Ambulance. I got to know people at the charity, and they knew I was a harpist, and after several conversations we were able to make this project a reality once the wards opened up to visitors in autumn last year.

There are four elderly care wards I visit and I go to two each week. I usually enter the ward and just start playing. The harp is a gentle instrument and introduces itself quite well without me saying anything, especially if people are in a sleepy mood.

"The responses are very positive - often people have had memories sparked and there are sometimes tears of emotion or heartfelt thanks."

Mary Reid

Depending on how the patients respond, I might pause to ask them what sort of music they’d like to hear and do my best to accommodate. Regular requests include Irish music, hymns, Bach and songs from musicals. Often, as I'm getting my harp back on its trolley to move to the next bay, I get to chat with patients about music, the harp, and answer their questions. The wards are small enough that I can gauge quite quickly who is keen to talk and who is happy to listen to whatever I might pull out of my bag.

The responses are very positive - often people have had memories sparked and there are sometimes tears of emotion or heartfelt thanks. I love it when a patient tells me a personal story that has come to them after I've played a piece, or a time they went to a concert when they were younger. Recently one said with tears in her eyes how much she could 'feel every note' and was always waiting for the next visit.

The staff on these wards are so good at encouraging the patients to engage and listen. Every week at least one nurse or physio or receptionist tells me how the music has calmed them down and helped them have five minutes to 'just be' in the midst of a busy day.

There are so many memorable moments in the job that it’s hard to pick just one. One time a physio recommended I play in a corridor outside one lady's room who was quite distressed but who loved music. We ended up having a full 20 minutes of sing-along – where she recalled every word of all the songs and sang in tune, with staff gathering round like a mini impromptu concert. It was such a celebration and very moving for all to see this lady at her best! 

One recent patient told me: ‘Music makes people feel so much better, like a visit to the countryside. We should have it every day, like medicine.’ I agree with her!

Mary Harp 2

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