Music is therapy for palliative patients and families

Harry Eigenseher loves music. And as a patient on the Palliative Care unit at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital, he’s getting support in living with terminal illness through music therapy.

"The music cheers you up. It’s what keeps you going," says Harry, 68, who's a big fan of American country music star Don Williams.

Harry's wife, Carol, 67, participates in music sessions with Harry, and she says they're "very valuable. They give us an opportunity to connect at a very deep level."

Many people living with terminal illness find comfort in their favourite songs, says Sheila Killoran, Accredited Music Therapist. As part of the palliative care team, she works with patients and families to improve their well-being and provide care and compassion.

"As a music therapist, I'm trained in supportive counselling as well as music, so I'm able to help patients and families process whatever comes up," says Sheila. "Because I have the training, it can lead to a positive experience."

Sheila defines music therapy as the use of music — or elements of music — to support health and wellness for patients and families. Therapy sessions can include recorded or live music adapted to the patient’s symptoms, energy level, wishes or mood. Sometimes the whole family is involved, singing songs and playing instruments together.

Research has shown that music therapy can increase a palliative patient's quality of life, even as their physical health declines. It can also relieve pain, physical discomfort, tiredness and anxiety.

Music brings up a range of emotions for patients and families, says Sheila. "It's not always just sad. Sometimes we're jamming, and it's very vibrant. The focus in palliative care is to help people live until they die, and that can look different for different people."

Music therapy for palliative patients can also have different treatment goals — pain relief, relaxation, emotional expression, connection with self or family members, coping with anxiety or fears, or spiritual support. And music therapists can use different techniques to help a patient. For example, to calm a patient who's agitated, Sheila might use a technique that involves syncing live music with the patient’s breathing until the patient is settled.

Sheila also helps patients or family members create legacy projects through music. For some, that might mean writing songs, or it could be creating a CD with personal messages.

“Music therapy is always the patient’s or the family’s choice. If the patient isn’t interested, but their family member is, I can just work with the family,” says Sheila.

Harry says he looks forward to Sheila’s visits. “She helps me communicate in a way that makes sense,” he says. "The songs tell [my family] how important they are to me."

One of Harry’s favourite things about the sessions with Sheila is imagining taking a trip somewhere. Sheila uses guided imagery, soft singing and the sounds of an ocean drum and other instruments to take him to Hawaii and different places he and his family have visited. Travelling through music “helps me cope with what’s going on,” he says.

Carol is able to listen and go to those places with him. "[The sessions] bring back memories of love and friendship. For Harry, those memories are treasures, and music helps us reconnect to those treasures," says Carol. “It’s poignant, and it’s sad, but the music gives us a chance to share, and by sharing, there’s a sense of wholeness.”

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