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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Cavalli-Price

Music Boosts Well-Being of People in Hospice and Palliative Care

A small study suggests that people in hospice and palliative care who listen to live music in their rooms as part of their treatment feel better both emotionally and physically.

The research was published online on July 25, 2018 by the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Read the abstract of “Music Intervention as a Tool in Improving Patient Experience in Palliative Care.”

The difference between palliative and hospice care

Palliative care focuses on relieving the pain, anxiety, and stress that cancer or other serious illness can cause. Palliative care doesn’t treat the disease. The goal of palliative care is to make a person feel as comfortable as possible.

Hospice care also focuses on easing pain and improving quality of life, and like palliative care, hospice care doesn’t treat the disease.

Still, there are important differences between the two. Hospice care is reserved for people facing the end of life, typically within 6 months. Palliative care is for anyone who needs help dealing with physical pain as well as the stress and anxiety that a serious illness can cause. It is given right along with active treatment for the disease.

Both hospice and palliative care can be given at a hospital/clinic or at home.

This study, done in 2017, included 46 people who were seriously ill and receiving palliative or hospice care at Kent Hospital and Women and Infants Hospital in Rhode Island. The researchers offered the people the option of having a flutist play music in their rooms as part of their care.

People could request particular songs or styles of music

Cynthia Peng, a third-year medical student at Brown University and lead author of the study, is trained as a flutist. Before coming to Brown, she was a musician with the Georgetown Lombardi Arts and Humanities Program, which uses music, writing, dance, and visual arts as part of patient care at the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

The people in the study could request particular songs or styles of music, or leave the choice up to Peng. She made sure to have a variety of music on hand, including classical, folk, oldies, hymnals, and jazz, to fulfill people’s preferences.

People who chose to have music in their rooms filled out a survey about pain, anxiety, depression, nausea, shortness of breath, and overall feelings of well-being before and after listening to the music. The researchers also tracked the people’s use of opioid pain medicine before and after they listened to the music.

The researchers found that people who listened to music reported less pain, anxiety, nausea, shortness of breath, and feelings of depression, as well as an increase in feelings of well-being after listening to the music. All these differences were statistically significant, which means they were likely due to the music and not just because of chance.

People who listened to music also tended to ask for fewer opioid medicines in the time after the music was played.

“A lot of these patients are inpatient for long periods of time,” Peng said. “People — family, friends — may visit, but for the majority of the time they’re kind of either passing time or watching TV. Having an intimate, enjoyable experience for the patients is really valuable, especially when they’re facing a lot of difficult decisions, symptom-management issues, maybe facing the end of life.”

What people who listened to music said

The researchers also asked the people in the study opened-ended questions about their experience with the music after hearing it. Here’s what some of them said:

  • “The music made me think of God, granting me peace, strength, and hope.”

  • “It put me in a quiet pasture.”

  • “I want to go home in a happy mood. I want to spend as much time as possible with my kids and grandkids. I am now getting discharged in a good mood.”

The researchers said there were no downsides to people listening to music, and they hope that hospital and clinic administrators will consider incorporating music and other interventions into patient care.

“Classical music shouldn’t just be for concert halls,” Peng said. “It should be something that everyday people can participate in, take part in. I hope more hospitals and healthcare settings can make music accessible as a source of comfort for patients and their families.”

Other studies looking at the mechanisms of how music helps people have found that music can affect the emotional center of the brain that releases the body’s natural opiates, including endorphins and serotonin. Endorphins reduce perceptions of pain and trigger positive feelings. Serotonin promotes feelings of well-being and happiness.

If you’re receiving hospice or palliative care at a hospital or clinic, you may want to ask if there is an option to have music in your room. Some places work with local musicians who play songs in people’s rooms. If that’s not available, you may want to ask a family member or friend to bring you a radio or digital music player. A loved one also may be able to put some music on your mobile phone that you can listen to through headphones.

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