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How Does Music Therapy Help In Hospice?

Hospices provide comprehensive palliative care to people at the end of life. At a time when comfort and quality of life become more important than curing a disease, people on hospice services receive help from from professionals across several disciplines, including medical doctors, nurses, home health aides, social workers, chaplains, and volunteers. Increasingly, music therapists are also part of this interdisciplinary team.

Music therapy is a clinical service provided by credentialed music therapists (MT-BCs in the United States). Because of their unique training and experience at the intersection of music and human health, music therapists are uniquely qualified to work with patients through music at a deep, therapeutic level.

It is the depth and breadth of clinical music therapy practice that distinguishes it from other applications of music in hospice care. While an approach like harp therapy is limited musically (to harp music), a music therapist can provide a wide variety of music on several different instruments. A music therapist is also knowledgeable and experienced in manipulating the various elements of music to address the various clinical needs that emerge in the shared music experience. (I wrote much more on that topic here.)

Old young holding hands seatedMusic therapists help in many ways, and exactly what we do and why changes from session to session, depending on the patient’s needs and desires on any given day.

Here are three big ways that music therapy helps people in hospice care:

1. Music therapy helps loved ones connect.

Several disease processes and symptoms that occur frequently for people in hospice care can make it difficult for loved ones to connect with each other, just when those loving relationships are most important. Whether the cause is dementia, confusion due to end stage cancer, or disorientation or lethargy related to high levels of pain medications, this disconnection can be very painful for the person on hospice care and for their loved ones. Music can be a bridge for people, because of its central place in human experience and because of how music is processed in the brain. Music therapists know how to introduce and facilitate music experiences that help loved ones connect and communicate their love, despite dementia, confusion, or disorientation getting in the way.

2. Music therapy provides relief from pain and anxiety.

Music can help people relax on a physical level and on an emotional level. Music therapists are uniquely skilled in helping people find the right music for the moment as well as the techniques or images that work for them. For people who need another approach to pain management in addition to the medical interventions offered by the hospice team, music therapy can be just the right answer.

3. Music therapy can help people say the un-sayable.

Just as the symptoms attending the dying process can make communication difficult, so can the emotional burden of facing life and death. For people approaching the end of life, coming to terms with regrets, fears, and other intense feelings can at the same time be incredibly important and tremendously challenging. Music can provide a container for difficult emotions, allowing people to feel those intense feelings that are impossible to put into words. Music can also be a vehicle for sharing messages that are too difficult to say.

Why choose a music therapist for hospice care?

Two huge advantages to having board-certified music therapists working in hospice care are that

  1. They can be flexible in adapting their approaches to meet patients’ needs on any given day
  2. They have a depth of clinical knowledge that allows them to work effectively with people who are dealing with serious physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.

But still, you might be asking this question:

Are music therapists the only people who use music in hospice care?

No, we certainly aren’t! Other hospice professionals can use music within their own scope of practice, and musician volunteers are called upon frequently to visit patients to provide entertainment and companionship. Ideally, hospice organizations will call upon music therapists to provide direct clinical services to those patients who are most in need, and to train and consult with other team members and volunteers on how best to use music in their own work. In this way, people receiving hospice care will have music touching and healing them through the very end of life.

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