Robert* is 72 years old and currently staying at his daughter’s house. He’s living with heart failure and just signed on for hospice care at his cardiologist’s recommendation.
He doesn’t say much and his appetite isn’t what it used to be. He’s anxious about his diagnosis and worried about being a burden on his family. He even told his best buddies to stop visiting on Thursday afternoons – a standing date they’ve had for more than 7 years.
He used to love listening to The Rolling Stones. Now he rarely plays the old records in his collection. He never asks his daughter to find Sympathy for the Devil on YouTube anymore.
Robert is depressed and withdrawing into himself. Because of this, and the emotional benefits of music, his hospice social worker recommends a music therapy intervention.
A certified music therapist complements conventional medical care. It embodies the holistic hospice philosophy of care that soothes and comforts patients and their families through mind-body-spirit connections.
Music therapists establish relationships with hospice patients in order to address their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs. Individualized appropriate treatments can include creating, singing, moving to, and/or listening to music.
Music is a powerful medium. Notes and lyrics profoundly fill silence when words fail. Beats transcend cultural, language, and societal barriers, and the health benefits of listening to music reach far beyond a simple tap of the foot — especially in a hospice-care setting.
According to Barbara Crowe, past president of the National Association for Music Therapy, there’s a clinical, evidenced-based intervention that “can make the difference between withdrawal and awareness, between isolation and interaction, and between chronic pain and comfort.”
What would happen when the music therapist starts to play Honky Tonk Woman for Robert?
Would those first few chords affect him?
About halfway through Robert’s first music therapy session, the music therapist, at Robert’s bequest, strums and sings through “gimme gimme the honky tonk blues.” She misses a chord, and both she and Robert share a chuckle as the Stones expert quickly corrects her. He smiles for the first time in weeks.
By his third session, he talks openly with the music therapist about how he met his wife, now deceased, at a Rolling Stones concert. Many years ago, they used to drive their Chevy van with the windows down and radio turned up, belting out lyrics to Honky Tonk Woman at the top of their lungs.
He misses those days, but sharing these stories improves his mood and lessens his fears, which are the goals of Robert’s music therapy.
For others engaged in music therapy sessions, the goals may differ – from supporting grief-related work with families, to helping decrease clients’ restlessness or pain, or even just creating fulfilling and meaningful memories with loved ones during the moments spent in music therapy sessions. The music therapist works with each individual and family member to ensure that the music therapy interventions are aligned to each person’s clinical and personal goals and hopes.
In time, Robert’s reminiscing dials down his anxiety about impending chest pain and temporarily eases his shortness of breath.
Music therapy also helps Robert connect to the memories of his life and reaffirm his love for rock music. Rock music always eased his nerves and now it re-opens lines of communication with his friends and family about his life, illness, and the future.
During a music therapy session, Robert and a few friends even joined in playing You Can’t Always Get What You Want with the music therapist – she on guitar, and Robert and friends on various percussion instruments that the music therapist brought.
The jam session is recorded on a CD, along with several of Robert’s other best-loved songs, for Robert to give out to those same friends and family – a musical connection to remember him, and a testament to his love for them.
Mick Jagger crooned
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need
Robert smiled and said, “Exactly.”
*Name and photo changed to preserve anonymity