TORRINGTON — Bringing music to people who might otherwise be isolated and lonely has become an important part of caring for older and disabled people, and music therapists like Meg Capen know how powerful it can be.
Capen shares her gifts of song and music with elderly residents in and around Torrington, with sessions at Atria of Litchfield Hills, Keystone, LARC, Wolcott Hall and Easter Seals’ day care program. With restrictions for COVID-19 still in effect, Capen does her music therapy sessions from a distance, but the residents who attend still get the positive effects of her beautiful voice, her guitar, flute and drumming. She’s anxious to return to her communities of residents.
The work is something the trained vocalist and certified music therapy teacher has done for nearly 30 years, and a job that is joyful and fulfilling for her, every day.
“Music is my therapy,” Capen said. “It’s my comfort, my motivation, my stimulation, my relaxation. There’s a song for every one of those needs. Music is innate in all of us. It’s a way we can all communicate.”
Music therapy is an established health profession in which music is used within a therapeutic relationship to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. Research in music therapy supports its effectiveness in many areas such as overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, providing emotional support and an outlet for expression of feelings.
Since settling in Torrington in 2006, Capen has found a community of musicians, artists and others who share her passion for music. More recently, she’s also found avenues to join within the greater Torrington community, including Our Culture Is Beautiful. She and friends Jacques Williams and Chelsea and Mike Kaneb also founded Unity in Our Community, a group that meets to discuss social issues affecting them and finding resources to help others.
“It’s been about a year that I’ve been collaborating with these other groups,” Capen said. “It’s very fulfilling to be part of something that’s positive and focused on change.”
The New York State native grew up in Stoneridge, NY, outside of Kingston, and studied music at SUNY New Paltz, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. After graduating, she had an internship at the Southbury Training School, then took a job at a children’s center in Yonkers, working with the center’s dance program and serving about 115 children using music and dance as a creative outlet. When a job opened up at the Southbury Training School, Capen jumped at it, and spent the next 22 years of her career providing music therapy to the residents there. When she was hired in 1987, the school had more than 1.400 residents and a substantial staff. She worked with another music therapist, Julie Andring.
Capen earned her master’s degree in Transformative Leadership and Spirituality at Hartford Seminary, which has greatly enhanced her ability to enrich the lives of her clients at nursing homes, memory care centers, group homes and assisted living facilities.
“Southbury Training School is a community with a great spirit, love and acceptance,” Capen said. “To be in a place where there’s no judgment, where hearts are open, is just beautiful. During my time there, we all grew up together. When I started, the youngest resident was 19 or 20 — when I left, some of the people were in their 50s and 60s, and I’d known them for 22 years. It was just a wonderful place to work.”
Activities at the school involved music on many levels. “We had a fife & drum band, a bell choir, a glee club, a dance group — there were so many services offered, and they were stellar,” she said.
Sadly, in 2018, her position was eliminated, as the state began downsizing the training school and moving many of the residents there to outside facilities, group homes or independent living. For Capen, it was a sad departure from a place she loved. Those who remained at the school, she said, are still living safe, happy, enriched lives. Capen took her years of experience out into the world, and became an independent music therapist, contracting herself to homes and facilities for the elderly and disabled.
“I’ve been doing this work for four years on my own, and I definitely have an affinity for the elderly,” she said. “I’ve also done work with palliative care patients with Connecticut Hospice, and early intervention work with children. Music therapists are everywhere now — it’s something that can give so much back, that can help so much.”
Capen is a classically trained mezzo-soprano, and plays guitar, piano, flute and percussion. All those instruments are incorporated into her daily work with the many residents she visits. When the pandemic’s impact forced the closure of many of the facilities where she works, Capen was out of a job for a short time. “But I put out an email to assisted living and rehabs in the area, and I’ve been able to do music therapy using Zoom or just being outside,” she said. “Residents of Keystone, for example, reached out to me to do a session outside in March .. it was a nice day, and it went so well. I stood on the deck and people came out on the balcony to listen. It was just wonderful. People really enjoyed it.”
The universal power of music, Capen said, can heal, inspire and comfort people. “Even if a person is non-verbal, or is in a memory care program, they respond to the music, just not in the same way as we do,” she said. “No matter how compromised someone is, there’s a way they can take part in a creative activity. They make music in their own way.”
Not long ago, she was invited back to the training school to do a memorial service for three staff members who died from COVID-19. She’s been rehearsing for that upcoming memorial with Jacques Williams. and is looking forward to returning to the school to perform.
“I love my private practice,” she said, adding that she moved to Torrington in 2006. “Working in memory care in particular, is really amazing — when they see me, they may not remember my name, but they know I’m the music lady. And I help them remember things, with the music. I sing their favorite songs, and they can remember stories from the time they were younger. They love that.”
Capen has also provided music therapy to residents at LARC/The ARC of Litchfield County. She was invited to lead sessions there after meeting development and marketing director Mary Ellen Kunz at a chamber Leads Group meeting.
“Meg brings so much energy,” said Kunz, when she introduced Capen’s program in October 2019. “As soon as she starts playing her guitar, her fans join right in, making their own music.”
At Pomperaug Woods, another care center for the elderly, Capen is doing a series on famous composers. “We do the Gershwins, the Steins ... it brings back memories for them,” she said. “We hear war stories; they share their lives. You can get to know people on such a personal level in a safe, loving environment.
“There are also interactions that happen between members of the group,” she said. “I’m just the facilitator, and then when the music starts, they talk to each other and the dialogue continues. Sometimes, a resident will start to sing and lead, and I become the co-facilitator. When that happens, it’s wonderful.”