Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches
In 2008, 69-year-old Charlotte Lillquist was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that causes benign growths in several areas of the body, including the lungs.
Years later, her sarcoidosis took a serious turn. She developed pulmonary fibrosis, damaged and scarred lung tissue that makes it difficult to breathe.
Charlotte, who lived alone in a one-bedroom condo at the time, was already struggling to take out the trash, go grocery shopping and do laundry. Her children came over to help, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to live alone much longer.
“When I got that diagnosis, I told my daughter, ‘I think I need assisted living,’” said Charlotte.
Adjusting to assisted living
Charlotte moved to The Birches Assisted Living in Clarendon Hills in 2016, and even though she moved to The Birches by choice, adjusting was a challenge. At the age of 77, she was younger than many Birches residents, and she struggled to find neighbors she could connect with.
But soon Charlotte had a breakthrough. She reached out to Birches team members for support, read books about other people’s experiences adjusting to assisted living, and took a different approach to enjoying life in her new home.
She sat with new people. She attended activities she loved, like The Birches’ Resilience Club, a group where residents discuss ways to stay resilient in the face of life’s challenges, and she stopped attending activities she wasn’t as enthusiastic about, like Bingo.
All this helped Charlotte become more comfortable in her new home. But perhaps what lifted her spirits most was setting out to fulfill a longtime dream—learning to play the harp.
The healing power of harp
In March 2017, Charlotte attended a harp concert by Lisa Boggess, a professional harpist who performs weekly music therapy sessions in The Birches’ memory care neighborhood Encore. Charlotte loved the harp concert so much that she went to talk to Lisa afterward.
Charlotte only planned to compliment Lisa on a wonderful concert, but soon she found herself asking for harp lessons.
“I asked her if she taught lessons, and she said yes. So I asked her if she would teach me, and she said she’d love to. It happened in a matter of minutes,” said Charlotte.
In the 1970s, Charlotte had a friend who played harp, and she’d wanted to learn ever since. Over four decades later, she was finally fulfilling her dream.
Charlotte purchased a medium-sized lever harp from one of Lisa’s friends, and Lisa began visiting Charlotte for lessons after her weekly music therapy session in Encore.
Like any instrument, learning the harp isn’t easy. But Charlotte is making steady progress. She’s learning how to play with both hands, and she’s already learned over 10 songs.
Charlotte says she has no great ambitions for her harp playing. She just enjoys trying something new. But she has noticed that her harp lessons have helped her adjust to her new home. Her lessons have even eased some of the uncomfortable symptoms of her disease.
“I wasn’t feeling well one day, but I still did my harp lesson, and afterward I felt better. The harp is one of the most therapeutic instruments,” said Charlotte.
Over a year after Charlotte moved to The Birches, she finds satisfaction in her harp lessons and Resilience Club, among other activities. She has even made meaningful friendships—the kind she was afraid wouldn’t develop when she first moved in.
“I feel like I got some wonderful friends. I don’t think I came thinking I had to make deep, deep friends here. But that’s what happened,” said Charlotte. “I didn’t expect to learn how to play the harp either. But life is full of wonderful surprises.”
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