Exploring the Power and Comfort of Music in Hospice Care
When loved ones are dying it’s easy to feel helpless. We desperately want and need comfort. And we yearn to stay connected as long as possible.
Music can be the gift that offers both comfort and connection.
Here are some stories of people whom it helped during their time in hospice care.
Henry and his wife raised five children. Their home was always full of music and the kids grew up singing old southern gospel hymns like I’ll Fly Away and Power in the Blood. In his final years, Henry’s dementia had progressed and he lost all language. But when I, or someone else, would sing the old gospel songs he knew and loved, he could sing every word, in perfect pitch and even add harmony.
In Henry’s last hours his family gathered around his bedside and began to sing. They held him in their love and supported each other by doing something they had been doing as a family their whole lives -singing.
Earlier today I got a call from George. He called to tell me that his sister Susan had passed away. She had been in hospice care for some weeks and in a coma for the last two days of her life. George sat by her bedside watching her slip away.
Susan’s favorite song was In the Garden. Each time I visited her assisted living home she would ask me to sing it. And each time, she would tell me about how her father died when she was a little girl and how In the Garden was sung at his funeral.
George was too little when his father died to remember the funeral. But he knew this was his sister’s favorite song. Not a singer, he began to whistle In the Garden. Susan’s eyes fluttered open and George said, “I knew she could hear me.”
One of Jean’s favorite songs was Sentimental Journey. We would sing the first line “Gonna take a sentimental journey…” Then Jean would insert her own part, “bu, bu, bu bum” in between each line. It always made us laugh.
For the final days of Jean’s life, she was in hospice care and no longer speaking. I sat by her bedside with her son and daughter. In her ear, I sang “Gonna take a sentimental journey…”
Ever so quietly, and yet ever so clearly, Jean answered “bu, bu, bu, bum.”
Jean’s daughter and son and I shared a welcome smile, knowing she could still hear us and that we had connected with her.
Ron loved all kinds of music and had a special fondness for old country songs. After years of fighting Huntington’s disease, Ron was in hospice care. His family gathered around him, attending to his needs and seeking to comfort him.
There was little left that Ron could enjoy. He was no longer able to get to his beloved pool to sit by the water. But one thing he could still do and enjoy was listening to music.
Because Ron and his family were in Florida, his family requested musical videos from his friends. I sent a few songs, as did others. His sister reported that Ron’s response was “Beautiful” and “That was a blast.”
Ron’s family had found a way to give him something he could enjoy and find comfort in. Not only was it something they could all still do together, it was a way for those of us far away to connect and offer some small comfort.
Julie’s hospital bed was set up in the living room. Surrounding her was the clutter of a life well lived and several generations of her family. Little ones ran underfoot and young adult cousins stood around, at times awkward and at times jostling and joking, not sure how they were supposed to act. Julie was in hospice care. Julie’s husband and friends were ever attentive serving food and checking on her, offering comfort and conversation.
Julie’s friends knew she loved music and had asked me to come sing with the family. I arrived with my guitar and began to sing. Julie and her family called out their favorites: You Are My Sunshine, then Twinkle Little Star for the toddlers.
Secure now that it was okay to laugh and enjoy the moment, the cousins broke out an old rock and roll song. Spirits lifted with each song shared. Soon everyone was engaged in the music, together. Now everyone knew what to do. And it was okay to take a break from the grief.
Music can be the gift that offers both comfort and connection. And it’s never too late.
Have you found comfort in music? Have you ever comforted someone receiving hospice care? What favorite songs provided joy and comfort? Please share your story in the comments below.
Mary Sue Wilkinson is the founder of Singing Heart to Heart. She is a musician, a speaker and the author of “Songs You Know By Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care.” She is passionate about the power of music. Prior to her work with seniors, Mary Sue was a career early childhood educator and music teacher. Learn more at SingingHeartToHeart.com.