A Soulful Song: Music Therapy In Hospice Care

Add guitars and other musical instruments to the tools caregivers can use to help patients in hospice care. That’s what University of Alabama senior Sarah Pitts found when she brought her music therapy skills to patients in Hospice of West Alabama.

“We’ve gotten a lot of encouraging comments from families,” says Pitts, a music therapy major from Memphis, Tenn. “Sometimes families who hear us say, ‘Can you come and play a song or two?’ Even one session with a music therapist can reduce pain and anxiety in this setting.”

Pitts’ experiences in hospice care inspired her to research how students doing clinical practice in hospices react to the experience. She won the E. Thayer Gaston Award for outstanding student paper, and she continues her survey research with her mentor, Dr. Andrea Cevasco, assistant professor of music at UA. The resulting article is titled “A Survey of Music Therapy Students’ Practical Experiences in Hospice and Palliative Care.” Part of Pitts’ motivation for pursuing this research was the lack of resources she could draw on when working with hospice patients.

“In this particular area, there’s not a lot of research to go to as a student,” Pitts says. “The emotional component and goals are a little bit different from other clinical settings. You’re improving the quality of life or helping with the changing needs of the patient, and you’re also helping to provide closure and support for families. For students, it’s a very difficult thing to handle.”

Music therapy, taught in a four-year program with a six-month internship following coursework, combines work in music, psychology and other disciplines. It has many applications in a wide variety of environments and a broad range of clients, from premature babies to people needing physical or psychological therapy. The key is to get a patient moving or involved with the music, perhaps singing along or playing an instrument as the therapist plays on the guitar.

It might be that we have kids playing drums,” Cevasco says. “They reach and extend their arms out, which might help a child who has cerebral palsy whose muscles may be tense. Reaching out and playing the drum is fun and enjoyable, but the therapy also is important, because the child is using specific muscles that might normally be painful to use during physical therapy and daily exercises.”

The music therapy program has had a relationship with Hospice of West Alabama since 2007. Cevasco says one of her students came to her asking if she could work in hospice for her clinical experience, so Cevasco set it up. She notes that it takes a student with a particular interest in working with patients at the end of life to follow this path.

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