Miami Offers First College 'Threshold Choir' To Soothe Hospice Patients

May 2, 2019

The space between living and dying can be emotional and difficult for the person leaving this world and their loved ones. In 2000, a California woman created the Threshold Choir, a small group that tries to bring ease and comfort to those on the cusp or "threshold" of life.

There are nearly 200 Threshold Choirs around the world but the only college-based choir is at Miami University.

On Thursday evenings, a small cluster of Miami students softly moves from room to room at Hospice of Hamilton or the Knolls of Oxford. Talking is limited; they're there to offer compassion through song.  

"It's like a euphoric sensation in such a dark place," says Johanna Alexander, a junior majoring in psychology. "It's so touching and it's so moving and it's so incredible to see the effect that you have with these clients in hospice, and it's really cool that you can do such a big thing with nothing but your voice and your time ... it's just been really moving and inspiring for me to be involved in the organization."

The Threshold Choir visits two to six people in an evening, spending about 20 minutes. The songs are like harmonious lullabies, simple and comforting.

Elizabeth "Like" Lokon is the founder and director of Opening Minds through Art at the university's Scripps Gerontology Center. She created Miami's Threshold Choir in 2016.

"Everybody knows we're all going to die," she says. "But a lot of people don't engage in a real sense of what death is or what it might be or what it might feel like, especially when you're young and strong and the prospect of death is not an everyday reality. I wanted to bring the notion of death to be very much a part of life to Miami students."

The choir is open to anyone, and students come from a variety of majors. Each semester begins with about three weeks of training where new members learn the songs and how to prepare for a bedside environment.

Junior Mitchell Singstock plans to go to medical school to study oncology and palliative care. He's learning that healthcare doesn't always mean doctors and medicine.

"For some conditions the best treatment isn't a drug or surgery or something like that. For a lot of these people, they have the healthcare that they need in terms of nursing staff and pharmacology but what they really are needing is some social and spiritual support."

Music is part of Hospice of Hamilton's mission to help people have the best possible and most meaningful end-of-life experience. Tina Bross, supervisor of holistic services, identifies clients for the choir to visit. She says both benefit.

"When I have been in a room observing a patient and the family, but also looking at the choir members, I see these young college students who are putting themselves in probably a quite vulnerable place and I'm sure that they're growing from it and I think that's a beautiful part of their education and their experience."

Singstock is particularly fond of a song he calls "Joyfully."

"The lyrics are 'And when I rise, let me rise like a bird, joyfully. And when I fall, let me fall like a leaf, without regret.' The first part of it reminds me what a beautiful thing life is and what it means to be grateful for it," he says. "And then the final lyrics send the other message about wanting to be with people at the end of life and giving them that support."

Threshold Choirs are predominately older and female. Alexander remembers meeting fellow singers at a regional conference.

"They were so so thankful that there were some younger people involved because their concern is 'Who's going to be there to sing for me when it's my time?' That really struck a chord with me."

She believes it's important to get more young people involved. The group's advisor, Like Lokon, would like that, too.

"It's important for Miami students because it really drives home the learning they cannot achieve in the classroom. They have to go out into the community and experience it for real."

Here is a video of the choir at work.