A sound connection

Music therapist at Oak Bay Lodge brings joy to others through song

Carolyn Hoekstra

Carolyn Hoekstra

Walk into the Oak Bay Lodge and you’re likely to find Carolyn Hoekstra behind the piano.

As a music therapist and coordinator of therapy services at the lodge, Hoekstra uses music to help engage with patients and initiate social interaction among them.

“The music helps to enable them to express themselves either emotionally, or physically, or spiritually,” Hoekstra says.

“We use the music as a therapeutic tool to maintain, restore, or improve those different elements of being.”

Hoekstra, who has worked at the lodge for almost 20 years, says she’s always been amazed by people’s ability to sing when they have trouble piecing words together.

“People who either are compromised cognitively or physically – they have very little short term memory left or can’t speak – can still sing and can still recall memories from their childhood, just from singing a song,” she says.

Depending on the goals and objectives set out for each person, Hoekstra decides what type of music to play for them, noting that it usually involves music from their youth.

Popular tunes, big band music, and singalongs are what the seniors enjoy most, Hoekstra says, adding that she plays tunes from the late 1800s to the 1960s.

But music therapy doesn’t always involve playing music; it could just be a discussion about music, she says. She gets together once a week with a couple of residents in their late 50s to talk about jazz.

Music therapy is usually done one-to-one or in groups of eight to 10 depending on the needs of each individual.

Residents who seem to isolate themselves are often the ones she spends time with individually.

“You don’t really have to say anything if you’re using music (to communicate), and that kind of encourages people to interact and, very often, feel more comfortable in that (one-on-one) situation rather than a large group.”

Hoekstra also plays for groups as big as 25 in the lodge’s adult day centre, which includes seniors from the community who are not residents at the lodge. The day centre provides a place for seniors who live on their own to interact with others rather than sit at home alone.

By encouraging discussion in a group situation, it helps improve their social interaction, Hoekstra says.

“Music is a universal language. People feel more comfortable, I think, in a situation where everybody’s singing, or lots of people are singing, and then we’re talking about music and discussing themes around the music and people do, a lot of people, engage right away.”

Hoekstra has played the piano since she was five years old. She also used to play the cello and learned to play guitar while training to be a music therapist at the former Capilano College in Vancouver.

What she loves most about her profession is sharing music with others and being able to make people feel better through music.

“You just put a piece of music in front of me and I’ll play it without an issue. So I take it for granted sometimes, that something that comes so easily to me or can be so basic to me, is so important to other people,” she says.

“It provides them with such a sense of happiness, and being content and feeling better about themselves, and that’s really important to this age group of people, who tend to be socially isolated.”

Hoekstra was recently selected as a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, an award honouring Canadians who have made significant contributions and achievements in their community.

Besides working with residents of the lodge, Hoekstra volunteers and entertains at various facilities in Victoria. She’s also worked at Nigel House, a care home for adults with disabilities, for about 16 years.

Making people feel happy and feel good is what her job is all about, she says.

“I never thought that I would be doing this kind of work, so to be able to share the gift (of music) with other people that enjoy it as much as I do but can’t provide it (for) themselves, I’m really lucky to be able to do that, to use something that’s second nature to me as a profession.”