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'All We Have Is Today': Music therapy at the end of life

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Kaitlyn Kelly
Kaitlyn Kelly

When working in long-term care settings, the reality is that we are caring for people in their final days of life. Individuals in long-term care typically have lived lives with much to process and share with others.  

How can we provide our residents the compassion and care needed for their physical, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being at the end of life?

Jose Reyes, 100, was one of the first residents I worked with when the End of Life Music Therapy Program at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health was established.

When we first started working together, Jose did not want to die. He had lived a long and healthy life, spending his life dancing professionally with his wife (Stella, pictured below) as his dance partner. Yet now he was about to die.  

Jose Reyes and his wife, Stella.Our work did not focus on the pain around his life ending. Instead, together we focused on the aspects of his life that made it difficult to say goodbye.

Jose wrote the song “All We Have Is Today” two weeks before he died. This song is a testament to his life, sharing his views on beauty and life, honoring his family, and leaving his legacy for future generations. Jose listened to his song as he was actively dying.  Jose's daughter, Alida, was so touched that she read Jose's lyrics at his funeral. His words continue to be shared and in this way, Jose continues on, just as he had wanted.

Though there are great benefits to listening to pre-recorded music or a live performer, music therapy, a clinical and evidence-based profession, works in collaboration with various clinical disciplines focusing on clinical goals. Credentialed music therapists, who can be found through the American Music Therapy Association website, work with individuals approaching the end of life with live music to increase quality of life, coping skills and self-expression, and alleviate pain. They also address the immediate needs of the individual.

When residents are focusing on the music, pain is often reported by the resident to have lessened or as no longer being present. Family members speak of music therapy as being a “gift” for their loved ones.  When residents are no longer able to communicate verbally, music is a way to remain in the aesthetic of this world and continue participating in living.

Just as music therapy proves to be effective and supportive for residents and their families, the same is true for staff members.  Staff members grow to love and care for our residents as though they are family.

Staff members often will stay in the room during music therapy sessions and engage in the music with the resident, a new way for the two to be in relationship with each other.

We have established designated areas throughout the Hebrew Home for all people to interact with their grief by writing down wishes or blessings for residents who have recently died. Accompanying our beautiful and expansive view of the Hudson River, we have our In Memoriam Tree — a piece of art with the names of each resident who has died within the calendar year inscribed on each leaf of the tree, just as they are inscribed in our hearts.

So how do we provide our residents the compassion and care needed for their physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being at the end of life? The answer is, and always will be, with love.

Kaitlyn Kelly is the End of Life Music Therapist at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health in New York.




Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.

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