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Swan Songs are a musical ‘last wish’

Music is the centerpiece for many life celebrations – even at end of life. A new program through Avera@Home hospice care gives patients and their families a “musical last wish.”

Swan Songs creates a private concert for Avera hospice patients, and their family and friends. “They laugh, cry and just have a great time together with their favorite music,” said Helen Block, Volunteer Coordinator with Avera@Home.

Swan Songs was started in 2005 in Austin, Texas, by musical artist Christine Albert, who came to understand the power of music when asked to sing for patients at end of life.

Thanks to contacts with staff at the Avera McKennan Foundation in Sioux Falls, Albert allowed for the first Swan Songs program outside of Austin to be launched in Sioux Falls. Albert came to Sioux Falls in September to stage a concert to benefit Swan Songs through Avera@Home home care and hospice.

To date, there have been four Avera Swan Songs concerts – two featuring polka music, one featuring Beatles music, and one by an Elvis impersonator.

“Music is a fantastic way to help patients cope,” Block said. In the past, patients at Avera’s Dougherty Hospice House have benefited from musical guests and music therapy. Building upon these valuable services, Swan Songs is a way to come together with family and friends for an entire concert. “It’s like a musical last dance,” Block said. Donations toward Swan Songs support a stipend for local musicians who provide the concerts.

Judi Schwerin and Dayna Groskreutz’ father, Gerald, benefited from a Swan Songs concert at the Dougherty Hospice House two weeks before his death in October at age 86. He had been diagnosed with carcinoid cancer in 2001, although his health did not decline significantly until the last months of his life.

“Our dad was a Minnesota dairy farmer and didn’t have much time for anything but dairy and farm work for the first 70 years of his life,” Schwerin said. Yet he always loved music and loved to sing. Favorite songs were “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Somewhere my Love,” and “Edelweiss.” In his retirement years, as he became less involved in dairy and farm work, he began singing in the church choir.

Facing the death of a loved one is a bittersweet time, Groskreutz said. “The Swan Songs concert, for a little while, allowed us to celebrate life and what makes life beautiful.”

When he heard it was time for the concert, he asked his wife, Bonnie, “May I have this dance,” and the first song at the concert was “Could I Have This Dance,” recorded by Ann Murray.

Throughout the concert, Gerald was well enough to enjoy time with all seven of his children, and many of his grandchildren. “It was just time to celebrate who he had been throughout his life,” Schwerin said.

There were a few tears but a lot of smiles. “Dad had a smile that went from one side of his face to the next,” Schwerin said.

In the midst of the grief, terminal illness is a gift to be embraced, said Schwerin. Unlike a sudden, unexpected death, there’s time to say goodbye.

Gerald’s family is thankful for Swan Songs and other special moments they had together during his last days. “It’s a chance to say things that haven’t been said, and say things that you’ve already said again and again,” Schwerin said. “Those moments are our memories now.”

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