Music Therapy helps patients in end-of-life care at Vancouver Hospice

17 May 2021

Patients who have been placed in palliative care with life-threatening illnesses come into the building knowing their lives are going to change. The reality of end-of-life care is that it is a hard thing to accept, conceptualize, and find comfort with. Music therapy can support these patients and their families in unique and incredible ways. The music therapy program offers comfort and relaxation while allowing them to reflect on their lives and memories that come forth when listening to music. The unimaginable pain and grief for a patient or family member, that comes along with knowing the reality of an individual’s stay at a hospice, can be unbearable. Turning a hospital room into a safe space allows for emotional expression, relationship reconciliation, and finding closure within themselves and with others. 

At Vancouver Hospice, patients and their loved ones are given compassionate care with the focus on being cared for and letting go of the focus on being cured. Music therapist Josh Denny-Keys worked closely with Arlene, who was no longer able to cope with her cancer diagnosis by herself anymore. She welcomed Josh and the program well and would sing along to songs by The Beatles, Elton John, and many more. The service gave her the chance to enjoy her final weeks and days, filling her sterile hospital room with music and making her smile from start to finish. It distracted her from the reason why she was there, while still allowing her to feel her overwhelming emotions. Arlene commented on her experience with the music therapy program, saying it was the “highlight of my days and weeks” and that “if I have the choice to watch some boring old re-run, or listen to [music], I’m sorry, I’m picking [music] every time.” 

Music therapy benefits these patients the same way that medication would, in the way that it alleviates pain from their illness. However, it is different in that medication often numbs the patients while music therapists hope that music, singing a meaningful song and sharing in life stories, has a stronger impact in a patient’s last few days. Listening to one’s favourite music, and knowing it could be the last time they could hear such a melody, can bring about strong waves of emotions that music therapists want to help them embrace. Even with such harsh circumstances, the patients are able to use music to stay connected with their identities before their diagnosis and keep their strength while enduring treatment.

Music therapy also benefits the family members

Implementing music therapy into a patient’s day-to-day life in end-of-life care can provide comfort to the family as well, knowing their loved one is also being comforted and that they have something to bring them joy in a time of sadness and loss. When a patient has a life-threatening illness and are bed bound, there are not many ways to help them live the rest of their days to the fullest to provide fulfilling and meaningful closure to their life. However, music has a special place in everyone’s heart and has been shown to provide transformative improvement in one’s emotional and psychological state, therefore improving their quality of life even as it is ending.

Everyone who has lost or is losing a loved one just wants to know that their loved one is going to be okay, that they are loved and cared for, and they are happy with the life they led. Music therapy opens that door of communication between family members. It helps the patient’s family deal with their anxiety over the looming loss of a loved one, learn how to better communicate with their loved one to be able to share experiences and positive memories, express their feelings, and strengthen the family bond. 

The music therapy program at Vancouver Hospice has been partially adopted by the Meehan Family, which is helping re-establish the program that has been dormant. This is a meaningful program that can make an immeasurable difference in a patients’ end-of-life experience. Music Heals hopes that with more support for the program, music therapy will be able to help even more patients in end-of-life care to live their last weeks or days to the fullest and bring them comfort and joy. 


Written by Natalia Ortiz