Music Therapy

This week marks two special celebrations: Iowa Music Therapy Awareness Week and on March 1st, World Music Therapy Day. There are over 7,500 board certified music therapists currently working in the United States. According to the annual workforce analysis, completed by the American Music Therapy Association, the number of music therapists working in hospice and bereavement services has doubled in the past five years. Iowa City Hospice has three board certified music therapists on staff and has had music therapy as a part of our interdisciplinary team since 2005.

Unlike the doctor, nurse, social worker, or chaplain, the role of music therapists in hospice care may not be as well known. Music therapists are experts in the intentional use of live and recorded patient preferred music to address physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients and their families. One common misconception is that individuals require formal music training to benefit from music therapy services. However, music therapy is a present, in-the-moment experience that focuses on uncovering and growing through each person’s unique relationship to music and relationships to others through music. Patients and families can experience music therapy as a solely receptive experience by listening to the music provided by the music therapist, but commonly conversations arise and engagement through creative expression occurs.

The following are two examples of different patient experiences with music therapy in Iowa City Hospice care. Names and details have been changed to respect confidentiality.

Donna had cancer and was pleasantly confused due to dementia. The interdisciplinary team had observed her agitation and brought music therapy into her care to increase relaxation and comfort. During the first visit, she responded with a bright smile, direct eye contact, and said, “That would be lovely” to the offer of live music. The music therapist visited twice a month and used live music to enhance communication and provide access to long-term memories. Donna loved big band music. She would tap her fingers, bob her head to the rhythm, and mouth an occasional phrase to a song. Hearing the songs of her youth brought back memories, and she spoke about the many hours spent at the roller skating rink in her hometown. It was where she met her husband who had died several years ago. Music took her to happier times and allowed her to relive those memories, which in turn helped to distract her from pain and calmed her agitation. She told the music therapist at the close of one visit, “I don’t have many things I enjoy, but music is one of them.”

Mark was a husband with young children. He had cancer and his life was ending far earlier than he or his family anticipated. Music therapy provided a space for the family to continue to create special memories through making music together. A family song was written over the course of several music therapy sessions, each verse provided details about each family member and the uniqueness that they brought to the family experience. There were many emotions expressed through the creation of this song and it was intended to be recorded during the next visit. However, Mark died before this visit was able to take place. Several weeks after his death, his wife and children recorded the song as a memory in his honor.