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Music Speaks When Words Fail
Submitted by: Heritage Hospice


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Music Speaks When Words Fail

When Ruby Daniels’ mother was in hospice care, she came to visit her and wanted to show her the guitar she recently had started learning to play. “It was remarkable what happened. She was excited about it. She was engaged about it. She sat up and we had conversation about it.”

Even though Daniels had been playing only a month, her mother wanted to hear her perform. “I just remember the look on her face. The joy that it brought her and I knew that there should be more music shared,” says Daniels, an international health care researcher from San Antonio, Texas.

On the flip side, no one ever suggested playing music when her father was near the end of life. “He was in a nursing home environment. Staff was more stressed. I don’t fault them at all but it wasn’t presented as an option.”

After she saw the effect music had on her mother’s outlook, Daniels decided to study the use of music in hospice care. As a researcher, Daniels focuses on teaching others how to apply studies to their work. Heritage Hospice’s social workers and chaplains were trained to use music with patients. Her paper, titled “Where Words Fail, Music Speaks: A Mixed Method Study of an Evidence-Based Music Protocol for Hospice Social Workers,” has been recommended for publication in the Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work.

Cathy Reeser, a Heritage Hospice social worker and also a guitar player, says music definitely helps her form connections with patients. Even before Daniels’ visit, Reeser had witnessed a few breakthroughs with patients. For one woman who had been active in church, Reeser played “Amazing Grace.” The patient was not communicative and never opened her eyes but she sang the chorus.

It’s important to discover the genre of music that a patient identifies with. Reeser uses country music to increase communication with James Davis, a patient who had played in a country music band. Davis may be sound asleep, but when Randy Travis starts singing “Forever and Ever Amen,” a smile crosses his faces and he sings.

“He has sang the chorus every time I play it. It’s one that he really likes. It gets his foot tapping,” says Reeser, noting that she has gotten similar responses when playing other country music songs for this patient. “I’m playing all kinds of things and he’s just singing along.”

Reeser often uses her iPhone to play music for patients but also has access to Senior Collection Kits from the Boyle County Library. For almost two years, the library has been offering the music kits with CD players and headphones, about 20 CDs and recorded books for use in assisted living and nursing facilities. The library wanted to offer the kits because “music provides a great opportunity for conversation and sharing and has a therapeutic benefit for people with a variety of medical conditions.

Daniels says interaction through music improves hospice care and she is so glad she realized it with her mother. “In end of life care, where every single moment is valued, those quality interactions were meaningful, not only for me, but for my family.”

She even noticed that other staff members expressed interest. “A nurse said, ‘I’d love to be able to sing.’”

When she returned to San Antonio, Daniels planned to have music used in an assisted living study where patients were more mobile and interactive. “We’re doing the same thing in a different environment.” Daniels says music can play an important role in many areas of health care. She didn’t have to look far for a title for her research on the subject. “When words fail, music speaks and I think that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Daniels notes that healthcare is very clinical and it doesn’t have to be that way. “People have this perception that music is just something fun we can do, but it’s so much more than that.”

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