Avera hospice's musical memorials preserve patient's heartbeat, voice for loved ones

March 2024

Jerry Olivier created musical mementos for his family in the time leading up to his November 2022 death. In this family photo is Olivier and his wife, Krista, their son, Ian, and daughter, Reagan. This image is taken from an online segment of the program, "Medical Minute."


Before he died of Lou Gehrig's disease in November 2022, Jerry Olivier was known to those he loved as a thoughtful present-giver. As he struggled with the progressive disease also known as ALS, he got assistance from a music therapist with Avera Health hospice to create poignant gifts for his wife, Krista, and children. Each got a recording of a song he had chosen for them, overlaid with a recording of his heartbeat and a message spoken by him.

For Krista, he chose "Dancing Queen" by ABBA. "It was a song from 25, 30 years ago, when I used to love dancing," she said. She said it was somewhat comical to her that her husband thought of that song for her, "but sweet all the same."

For his son, Ian, Jerry selected "White Christmas." When Ian hears the Bing Crosby song now, it has a little extra meaning. "It doesn't make you too sad in the moment, you just really appreciate it," Ian said.

And for his daughter, Reagan, Jerry picked Taylor Swift's "The Best Day." Jerry gave Reagan tickets to one of the megastar's concerts for her birthday. Reagan said of the musical memorial her dad created with the Swift song, "I thought it was really sweet of him to do that, and very meaningful."

She added, "I was very emotional listening to it, especially with having his heartbeat and listening to his voice recording that's in the middle of it."

The Olivier family's reaction to Jerry's personalized memorials come from a segment of Avera's "Medical Minute," a weekly informational and educational news series that the health system co-produces.


Jerry is one of many patients of Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Avera's hospice program who have taken board certified music therapist Rebecca Jennings-Boyer up on her offer to help them create memorials for their loved ones. "It's a beautiful gift for patients to give to their families, and I'm grateful that they trust me and that they allow me to be a part of this," she told Catholic Health World.

'Our voice'
Jennings-Boyer has been the music therapist for Avera home hospice for about five years. As part of her training, she learned of the work of music therapy guru Brian Schreck, and she was intrigued by an idea he shared about combining the heartbeat of patients with music and words.

Rebecca Jennings-Boyer uses programming on her laptop to create a musical memento for patients. Jennings-Boyer is a board certified music therapist with the hospice program at Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Avera.

"Our heartbeats are very individual, each has a different sound," Jennings-Boyer said. "Our heartbeats change in tempo based on our emotions, but the same sound of that heart is always there. Our heartbeats are our voice."

Captivated by Schreck's idea, Jennings-Boyer proposed the concept to an Avera committee, received Avera Foundation funds to create a program and then worked with an internal team to set up the technology and logistics. She began offering the musical memorials in 2022. She has recorded 73 heartbeats since then.

Coping aid
Jennings-Boyer is part of a multidisciplinary team that works together to learn what hospice patients' goals are and to help them achieve those goals. The musical memorials are just one of many ways she can aid patients and their families.

A central way she supports patients and families is by playing music for them to help them cope spiritually and emotionally.

She also works with the multidisciplinary team to create experiences for the patients that help them achieve end-of-life goals. For a woman who loved to dance with her children and grandchildren, Jennings-Boyer helped organize an event where the woman danced with each of her loved ones one last time.

Krista Olivier and her daughter, Reagan, listen to the musical mementos created for them by Jerry Olivier. The image is from the "Medical Minute" segment.


Jennings-Boyer also works with the team on funeral and memorial services. For veterans who die in Avera home hospice, she can contribute to memorial services with patriotic songs like "God Bless America" and the hymn for their branch of service.

Jennings-Boyer can help patients and their families use patients' heartbeat recordings in multiple ways beyond the musical memorials. For instance, she can help them get an electrocardiograph line of the patient's heartbeat to be inscribed on jewelry or incorporated into an art piece.

Jennings-Boyer has been present for the creation and gifting of musical memorial recordings. She has witnessed family members hearing the personalized recordings for the first time. She said it is moving and magical to be part of these moments, which add to a patient's legacy. She said patients and their families find it comforting and cathartic to create, discuss and listen to the memorials.

"These can be experiences and moments that are lifechanging," she said.

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