Hope in the darkness: WMU music therapy alum finds calling in hospice

Contact: Erin Flynn

Video of WMU alumna makes impact as music therapist for Hospice of Michigan
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—A guitar slung on her back, Kaitlin Ridgway isn't the typical professional you'd expect to see walking down the halls of a medical facility. But the work she does is life-changing for the patients and families she helps.

Ridgway, who earned her master's degree in music therapy from Western Michigan University in May 2018, found her calling at Hospice of Michigan.

"I think the impact of music therapy is huge in hospice," she says. "A lot of people see hospice as death and dying and the end of life, but I think music brings so much more quality to the life that we have left."


Kaitlin Ridgway sits in a chair strumming a guitar.

Kaitlin Ridgway plays her guitar.

Ridgway, a Grand Rapids native, graduated from Bowling Green State University with a bachelor's degree in music. Knowing she wanted to pursue a career in music therapy, she began researching programs across the country and found WMU and professor Ed Roth—a leading scholar in neurologic music therapy and founder of the BRAIN Lab, which focuses on studying how auditory cognition and music can improve treatment of neurological disorders.

"Roth brought really great training to the classroom and practical training that included hands-on learning experiences," Ridgway says. "I always loved that."

WMU also offered a unique opportunity for Ridgway to get both her equivalency in music therapy—filling in the gaps from her undergraduate degree—and master's degree.

"I loved Western's program because I got to do eight different practicums, so I got a really great variety of settings with patients," she says.

"I got to work with kids in a school with developmental disabilities. I got to work with geriatrics. I got to work in a children's hospital. I got to work in a psychiatric setting. I kind of got a little bit of everything to figure out which route was best for me, and I think that was a huge bonus that I don't think is seen as often in other schools."

Making an impact

During her time at WMU, Ridgway completed an internship with a hospice agency in Florida. That's when her calling as a music therapist really became evident, says Roth, who remembers getting glowing reports from her supervisors every week.

"I just can't tell you how much joy that brought to hear all the work, all the investment over the years come together during the internship in that way. It still gives me goosebumps," he says.

The internship experience also set Ridgway up for a unique opportunity after graduation. Hospice of Michigan brought her on board to create and develop its music therapy program.

"It started with educating the team, teaching them how music therapy can impact the patients," says Alison Wagner, Hospice of Michigan's director of volunteer services and complementary therapies.

"Once she started going out on those visits and once clinicians were seeing her in action, it just all opened up and I think her caseload went from a few here and there to just exponential growth."

Covering all of Oakland County, Ridgway's schedule changes from day to day. She visits patients in homes, facilities or hospitals, bringing her guitar and innate ability to form connections through music to every appointment.

Ridgway, right, sings with a patient.

"I've been out with Kaitlin a couple of times and been able to see the difference for myself of walking into a room, seeing a patient maybe sleepy or not fully engaging, and then see the transition in how they interact with her and what she brings to them in that music therapy visit and how they transform just in those moments," Wagner says.

"Those moments at the end of life are so special and transformational for that patient and for the caregivers that are around them."

The impacts of music therapy are wide-ranging depending on the needs of patients, from decreasing stress improving pain tolerance to accessing long-term memories and improving communication.

"I feel so grateful to be able to bring that kind of interaction to patients," Ridgway says, recalling a patient whose wife makes a point to come during her visit every week. "That's her time she spends with him, because it's the most interaction he gives and the most engaged he is through the whole week.

"He'll move his hands to the rhythms, and he'll pick out songs with me and he just has a huge smile on his face."


A young woman in a graduation cap and gown poses with her professor.

Ridgway, left, stands with Roth after graduation.

Ridgway credits WMU's music therapy program—one of the first accredited programs in the nation—with giving her the foundation and the network she needs to excel in her career.

"Western Michigan University's program was really great because it provided so much close-knit community between the music therapy program and the music school, but also with the professors," says Ridgway, who keeps in contact with former classmates at firms and institutions around the globe.

Professors are also committed to seeing students succeed. After finishing her equivalency, Ridgway had already become a music therapy professional and was working in Pennsylvania. The last year of her graduate program, Roth spent hours outside of class having video conferences to mentor Ridgway through her thesis.

"The research side of my graduate program was not my favorite thing," says Ridgway, "but he was just so pumped and excited about it all the time that it made it that much more bearable … I learned a lot."

With a rigorous application process, Roth says, students like Ridgway who are accepted already show high levels of skill or promise. The goal of faculty at WMU is to help those students reach their full potential and reciprocate the investment they've made in their education.

"We focus on trying to develop high levels of musicianship and clinical skills, and I think one of the natural outcomes of that focus is that the students are highly employable," says Roth.

"They understand the underlying biology of engaging with music and how that biology translates into making people healthier in a medical environment, in an educational environment, helping them make progress so they can articulate what's happening in music and how that translates into health and wellness."

With outcomes like Ridgway's, it appears the approach is working.

"I have interviewed music therapists from different places all over the country. I don't know what at first I was looking on somebody's resume to see if they went to Western, but I would say maybe I will from now on," says Wagner, "because what we have found is that consistently they have been well-educated, prepared to go out in the field, prepared to do this kind of work and are a good fit with our company culture."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.