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There has been much written about the benefits of music to our health and well-being in general, and in recent years, a lot of attention has been on the benefits of music therapy for people receiving hospice and palliative care.  Music therapy is just that—the therapeutic use of music. This allied health service was developed by a psychologist named E. Thayer Gaston, who was also a prominent figure in music education. His core principles for the practice were that music therapy: 

  • Helps establish or re-establish interpersonal relationships
  • Promotes positive self-esteem through self-actualization
  • Uses the unique potential of rhythm to energize patients, bringing order and calmness

In the hospice setting, music therapy can draw on patients’ diverse cultures, religions and unique memories to create a meaningful experience that promotes spiritual, psychological and emotional healing, a sense of peace and even happiness. In fact, music therapy is a palliative measure because of the comfort it brings on several levels. There are different ways to use music for people at the end of their lives, in ways that support so much of what hospice care is all about. For example: 

  • Singing – nothing promotes togetherness like a good sing-along. Caregivers, staff, family members and patients can enjoy gathering together to sing favorite songs and just have fun. 
  • Songwriting – like writing poems or memoirs, writing a song is a wonderful tool for self-reflection and paves the way towards emotional healing between the patient, friends and family. Similarly, discussing song lyrics can also help spur conversation or be used to guide introspection and life review at a sensitive time.
  • Movement – there are many ways to move to the music and get some physical exercise.

Of course, there are many individuals for whom simply listening to music is of tremendous value, especially if it is from a favorite era or connects them to their culture or heritage. Feelings of satisfaction and calm, a sweet nostalgia, even greater cognitive awareness can occur when hospice patients listen to music. This was a driver behind a wonderful project taken on by one of our young volunteers in 2016. There are physical benefits as well for people in hospice or palliative care. Music therapy has been shown to:

  • Reduce or ease pain and discomfort, manage symptoms
  • Lower anxiety and aid relaxation, improve mood
  • Provide emotional support, personal connections and alleviate feelings of isolation or fear. Music is a bridge that draws people together.
  • Promote self-expression and boost self-confidence
  • Enhance speech abilities – some people may have oral communication challenges due to illness or injury; singing can help improve breath control, vocal intensity and articulation.
  • Improve motor coordination – plucking guitar strings, banging a drum or other percussion instruments, and playing a keyboard can help a person regain some lost muscle control and improve eye-hand coordination. 

The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization released a video this past fall that shows the positive effects music therapy had on one patient, a man suffering from memory loss and agitation due to advanced illness. Working with the music therapist brought out his cheerful nature and a sense of peace as he sang and clapped along to the music. You can see it here: “Mr. Gregg: the Life of the Party.”

Family members and volunteers can help with this as well. Together, they can create memories together in the here and now, and bring a smile to their loved ones faces. All it takes is a playlist, a single instrument, or a favorite CD played on a device. If you are visiting someone at the Center for Hope Hospice, be sure to ask the office for one of our iPods, preloaded with music of different genres and for different age groups, for your friend or family member to enjoy. It’s one of the many ways we seek to provide comfort, a sense of calm, and moments of joy—even in our patients’ most difficult moments.