A group of volunteers sings to a senior woman because music touches lives of dying people.

Music Touches the Lives of the Dying

Bethesda Health | February 12, 2019

When the dying can scarcely speak, in their minds and hearts they can often still sing. Music touches some memory, some compelling source deep within people that causes them to respond. Hospice organizations, including Bethesda Hospice Care, use music to touch the lives of hospice patients, even in the last hours of their lives.

Music Awakens Minds and Memories

“We have a patient who barely speaks, but when our volunteer comes and plays songs for her, she will sing every word,” says Julie Strassman, Bethesda Hospice Care Volunteer Coordinator and Bereavement Assistant.

Chaplain Dorothy Gannon from Bethesda Hospice Care uses music when she visits hospice patients, either singing acapella or, when she doesn’t know the song, playing it from YouTube on her cellphone. She recalls one patient who loved old hymns. “She can’t remember the names of any of the hymns, but she sings with me on every song, matching the sound of my voice and making up lyrics if she can’t remember the words,” Dorothy says.

How Music Touches Us

Opinions differ on why music has such a deep meaning for people. Yet many are moved to remember something pleasant about their past when they hear an old favorite song—where they were when they first heard it, who they were with, and what the words meant to them.

Some research indicates music’s physical and emotional effects for hospice patients:

The harp is used extensively within several hospice organizations. Bethesda’s volunteer harpist, Tim Lilly, is part of a special program called Music for Healing and Transition, which certifies musicians in the provision of music for the body, mind, and spirit. Very near the end of life, harp music provides a soothing sound delivered in a prescriptive way—not necessarily a specific song but the individual notes of chords played without a recognizable pattern to relieve any stress or anxiety. “When the harpist breaks down chords and rolls up through the notes it provides a constant yet non-repetitive sound that encourages people to let go,” says Dorothy.

Julie has witnessed the effect on agitated patients when Tim plays. “We had a patient with very advanced dementia who didn’t respond to voice or touch, and would make agitated movements by jerking her legs,” she says. “After Tim played for a few minutes, her muscles relaxed and her legs stopped twitching. She couldn’t tell us that she felt more peaceful, but we could see it.”

Music is Everywhere at Bethesda

Dorothy is also the coordinator of the “Singing Them Home” Hospice Care Choir at Bethesda, a five-person group that sings to hospice patients at Bethesda communities. The group sings for patients and their families when the end of life is very near.

“We offer music if they want it, and the families almost always say yes,” she says. “We invite them to sing with us. It’s a way to let people release some of their emotions. It’s hard for the families to know what to do when they are sitting there for hours. It’s something they can do for their loved one.”

Dorothy notes that hospice aides sometimes provide music while bathing patients to calm the environment. Nurses and support staff at Bethesda communities also use music to build rapport with patients.

Hospice care volunteers share music with patients on their cell phones; one volunteer plays guitar, another the cello, and a third volunteer plays the ukulele. “We let families know that music is available, and can be matched with a volunteer who will play music for them,” says Julie.

To learn more about the benefits of music for seniors and to see if Bethesda’s comforting music program is right for you or your senior loved one, contact us today.


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