Music care at end of life

Categories: Care.

I saw this first hand when my Dad was dying in Room 217 at the Uxbridge Cottage Hospital north of Toronto.

Dad loved music.  He played the piano mostly by ear.  When I was growing up, we played songs together every Sunday afternoon, him on the organ and me on the piano. When Dad had his first and second quadruple bypasses, it was no wonder that music played a role in his recovery.  But the diagnosis of a stage 4 terminal illness was an unexpected and an unwelcome intruder. Yet music sustained Dad through his treatments, palliation, end of life and final transition. And it continues to keep me connected to him.

It is through these shared experiences around music that people feel a bond and a connection. That is why there are psychosocial benefits in using music in palliative and end of life care. Dr. Amy Clements-Cortes, Senior Music Therapist at Baycrest Hospital says that dying patients are looking for assistance with issues other than physical pain alone. She completed a study on how music therapy helps people complete relationships, both intra-personally and interpersonally.

Completing relationships with others is a task for people who are dying and it involves expressing certain sentiments: I love you, thank you, will you forgive me?/I forgive you, good-bye, according to palliative doctor, Ira Byock.  The task is not always easy. Songs may help us complete relationships. They become our words and express how we feel, the sentiment we want to convey:  “you needed me”, “you raise me up”, “you’re always on my mind”, “you’re still the one”, “you’ve got a friend in me”, “there never seems to be enough time to do things we want to do once we find them”.

Music provides emotional support not only for the one who is dying, but also for loved ones and caregivers. Palliative music therapist Deborah Salmon talks about the idea of containment. She says music becomes a place for people to express their feelings and a place for people to contain their feelings, whether it’s anger, loneliness, fear, sorrow or thankfulness.

Music is able to give intra-personal support. Certain kinds of music may help to regulate breathing, or promote sleep. Music may assist in pain distraction. It may bring comfort and peace and help deal with larger questions surrounding death and dying. It may help create meaning out of suffering. Music may be a part of the spiritual practice of the one who is dying and help strengthen faith, courage and hope.

Music is unique in that it has the capacity to follow someone through a diagnosis, treatment, palliation, end of life, imminent death and crossing over. And that very same music may provide care, comfort and sustained connection afterwards to caregivers and loved ones. I know that shared bond – it’s both profound and transcendent and a valuable part of end of life care.


Bev Foster is the Executive Director of the Room 217 Foundation, a registered Canadian charity dedicated to caring for the whole person with music.

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