When David Zheng, a third-year medical student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, finished playing the last few notes of a Chopin piece over video chat, the woman on the other end of the call smiled. She told him how much it reminded her of her childhood when her mother used to play piano in the evenings. It sparked a conversation and a few shared laughs.
The interaction was part of the initiative Creative Connection that Zheng is spearheading, along with classmates Alex Hillyer and Heidi Li, to bring live virtual musical performances to adults living in long-term care homes, palliative care and mental health centres, as well as inpatients in hospital wards who may be feeling isolated as a result of the pandemic. And the mission is expanding to continue beyond the pandemic, and to not only reduce social isolation in healthcare institutions but to make such therapeutic recreation more accessible and frequent through the virtual format.
“When the pandemic hit, I was really inspired by the other initiatives that my classmates were involved in,” Zheng said. “I looked into myself to see what skills I have to try to help in any way I can.”
Creative Connection has enabled more than 170 student volunteers from medical schools across Canada to connect with more than 750 residents and patients through video chats. The varied performances include piano, violin, cello, flute, guitar and singing. Some volunteers spend the chat time knitting or crocheting along with the residents, running virtual paint nights, or chatting about shared interests or in the residents’ native languages. Aside from students at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, Creative Connection has engaged medical school volunteers from the University of Ottawa, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and the University of Calgary.
Zheng, who has played piano since he was 9, performed as part of music therapy in several long-term care homes while studying for his undergraduate degree. Knowing the power of music to connect people and spark conversation, he saw this as a way to give back to people who are particularly vulnerable at this time.
“That’s the great thing about music; music is a universal means of communication and sparking discussion,” he said. “I was aware that they’ve had to restrict their usual recreational therapeutic programming, as well as restrict their normal family and friend visits and group activities because of physical distancing measures. I really wanted to find a way to help, especially since the elderly are disproportionately affected by social isolation.”
The residents are always thrilled with the performances, said Zheng. The student volunteers say that more often than not a musical performance will lead to a conversation, a shared memory or a laugh.
Zheng spent his free time this spring and summer learning new musical pieces that he hopes will appeal to his audiences’ nostalgia – songs from the 1930s and 40s, as well as the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.
“It has been very rewarding because, along with organizing the initiative, I also get to perform myself and that’s always a beautiful part,” he said.
Creative Connection continues to look for student volunteers to perform, and is eager to connect with more facilities interested in arranging virtual performances for their residents. For more information check them out at https://www.creative-connection.ca or sign up here.