Music Therapy Program

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“When you look at Cape Bretoners, music is so much within them—it’s really deep rooted,” explains Palliative Care Music Therapist Jill Murphy. “We use it all through our life, we sing to our babies, we learn the ABCs by singing, in our adolescence – music is a really strong part of those years, people go out on a weekend, they listen to music. It’s all through our life,” reasons Jill, “so why not use it in death as well.”

The Hospice Palliative Care Society of Cape Breton County funds the music therapy program. “It’s a service they’re not expecting,” says Jill. “Right away I’m not someone coming with needles.” It started five years ago — and the results have been astounding.

“It’s just as important as the medications,” says Alex Storm, whose wife worked with Jill in the music therapy program for months. “It helped put her in another frame of mind.”

Jill says when she enters a patient’s room, she asks a simple question. “Hi, I’m Jill, would you like some music in your room?” Whatever answer the patient gives dictates the rest of the visit. “Often people look at me like, ‘I’m in a hospital, this is really strange’,” Jill laughs. “But when I ask if music helps them relax or makes them feel better in general, then they start to get it.”

For those accepting of the music, she goes through a check list with them to see what kind of music they like or if they play any instruments. Often a nurse or family member will also help with the background information. During this stage of the assessment Jill says she gets a clearer picture of any areas in particular that might need work. “They might have anxiety, need help with communication, they’re not sleeping well, they’re feeling isolated. From those needs,” Jill explains, “I determine goals.” She then puts to use the many aspects of music. For instance, songwriting may be used as a means for communication, singing to enhance mood or listening to music to decrease pain perception.

Another aspect of the music therapy service are Legacy CDs. Jill says she’s made more than a dozen of these so far with patients. They come in various forms. “Palliative care patients often want to give a gift to their family and friends,” says Jill. These CDs become a unique and lasting gift with the patients voice – and sometimes word – forever saved.

The music therapy service helps support the patient’s family as well. Jill says patients’ families often end up singing along during the sessions. Or just sitting back and watching their loved one get such sheer pleasure from singing the songs that served as a soundtrack to their life. “They’re there for all the appointments and waiting in doctors’ offices, they get to enjoy this together.” Jill says husbands and wives often reminisce about the songs – their first dance, their wedding dance or ones popular at family ceilidhs. The music serves as a vehicle that brings with it happy memories, allowing the patient to return to those times – alleviating some of the very real pain.

Jill laughs as she talks about the strange looks she gets when she travels through the hospital with a guitar on her back. But to her, she knows the job is a privilege. “I’m pretty lucky.”

To support and promote compassionate care for individuals and their loved ones who are living with a life-threatening illness.