C/O Geert Pieters (Unsplash)

How music can foster connection in end-of-life care

By: Ryan Ziae, contributor  

The pandemic has added another layer of isolation to residents in hospices and palliative care. For some, heightened COVID-19 restrictions have deepened feelings of loneliness. Hospices are medical settings that deliver palliative care to individuals at the end of their life, combining the medical expertise of a hospital and the coziness of your home.  

A hospice, often misunderstood as a place of death, is instead dedicated to providing the best quality of life before someone passes. COVID-19 restrictions, such as reduced guest visitations, have compromised these goals, leaving residents feeling isolated and their days empty. 

Music therapy can address these gaps. This clinical practice performed by credentialed music therapists uses music as a medium to achieve personalized therapeutic goals.  

Annilee Baron, an accredited music therapist and a McMaster University professor who currently teaches Introduction to Music Therapy Research shared how music therapy can help during this time. 

“One of the ways that music therapy helped with mental health was reducing isolation. I was able to go in and meet with them [while] keeping a distance [and] connect with them through music,” said Baron.  

"One of the ways that music therapy helped with mental health was reducing isolation. I was able to go in and meet with them [while] keeping a distance [and] connect with them through music."

Annilee Baron, an accredited music therapist and a McMaster University professor who currently teaches Introduction to Music Therapy Research

Those who work in palliative care say reduced access to music therapy and heightened restrictions lowered residents' quality of life in long-term care homes.  

Avalon Harris, an accredited music therapist who currently works with a long-term care home initially faced many limitations at the beginning of the pandemic, including being restrained from providing face-to-face music therapy sessions.  

With COVID-19's initial wave of chaos, hospice staff were too overburdened to set up virtual music therapy sessions. With the sudden disappearance of music therapy, hospice residents and their families lost a crucial element of their hospice experience.  

“Music therapy in a hospice is a special time for families to participate together. Especially when people get to the state where they're not responsive anymore, families often struggle with connecting to their loved ones. Music therapy is a way to [connect] without a lot of pressure on the family,” said Harris. 

"Music therapy in a hospice is a special time for families to participate together. Especially when people get to the state where they're not responsive anymore, families often struggle with connecting to their loved ones. Music therapy is a way to [connect] without a lot of pressure on the family."

Avalon Harris, an accredited music therapist who currently works with a long-term care home

The pandemic has changed many aspects of music therapy sessions in a hospice. Group sessions which provided a medium to socialize, were stripped to one-on-one sessions.  

“Pre-pandemic, I would often have ten family members sing to their unresponsive loved ones [at the bedside], but now, it's just me singing to the unresponsive loved one,” explained Harris.  

Many current music sessions focus on addressing the resident's feeling of isolation rather than end-of-life work like saying goodbye or tying up loose ends. The residents' spiritual needs are not being addressed, which is especially important at the end of one's life.  

“A lot of times now, [due to many restrictions], the person is bored because their family can't come,” said Harris.  

Music therapy is often confused with general listening to music or a form of entertainment. Harris wished that more people would understand that music therapy is instead a clinical practice with a basis in science and research. 

“I wish that people understood what music therapy is. A tiring part of our job is explaining [the profession],” said Harris. 

"I wish that people understood what music therapy is. A tiring part of our job is explaining [the profession]."

Avalon Harris, an accredited music therapist who currently works with a long-term care home

To learn more about Harris and her involvement with community-related initiatives, students can visit her website at symmetrymusic.com. 

At McMaster, there are currently two introductory music therapy courses offered: MUSIC 2MT3 and MUSIC 2MU3. Baron recommends students interested in this field consider taking those classes.  

“McMaster is unique in the fact that it offers these undergraduate introductory [courses],” said Baron. 

[spacer height="20px"]Spurred by a love of music and a drive to help others, McMaster second year arts and science student Zach Levine has created a choir for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease in Hamilton.

The Hamilton Parkinson’s Chorus, which started in September and meets once a week on campus, is open to any in the Parkinson’s community and is free of charge.

When asked how the idea for a choir began, Levine, the founder and director, said he simply saw a need in the community and was particularly inspired by volunteering over the summer with Singing With Parkinson’s, a choir in Toronto where he saw how much good a choir like this could bring.

“I realized there was not already a choir in Hamilton,” said Levine. “I thought, I have been singing in a choir for about 11 years and music is something I have always used to improve my mood anyway. And because there is such a direct connection between music and people with Parkinson’s and improvement in vocal speech production, I figured this was an area I could help the Hamilton community.”

For assistant director Liam Cresswell, there is a personal connection to Parkinson’s. Over the summer, a mother of a close friend was diagnosed with the disease.

“This is an initiative that is very close to my heart, and is my own way of supporting her,” Cresswell said.

According to Levine, the benefits of a choir for people with Parkinson’s is also backed by scientific research. After he came up with the idea, Levine began looking very closely into Parkinson’s disease and the science behind music and its effects on the particular condition.

“I went into the McMaster library and probably read almost everything there was about group singing and Parkinson’s and music therapy for Parkinson’s,” said Levine.

Levine’s look into Parkinson’s disease has helped him better understand how to run such a choir and make it enjoyable and even beneficial to their condition.

“We have modeled our rehearsals and the exercises we do in rehearsals based on the exercises shown in research to have benefit,” Levine said. “The idea is to build a community based on well-established research.”

The choir began as a simple idea but required a great deal of work and collaboration. Levine and Cresswell put up posters at Hamilton hospitals and visited them to recruit members. They also worked with arts and science program director Jean Wilson and school of the arts professor Dr. Andrew Mitchell for logistical support, including the search for an accessible rehearsal space.

Levine has also been working closely with Parkinson’s Canada, meeting weekly to discuss the initiative.

While a choir is typically centered around rehearsing and performing music, the purpose of this choir is much more than that. According to Levine, it is about building a community, raising awareness about the disease and having some fun while doing so.

“We are not really concerned about how we sound. It is more about making sound and sharing the experience of singing with others,” said Levine.

Levine and Cresswell have already received positive feedback from the participants. In the future, the choir may hold concerts and other joint fundraising events with other choirs. For now, however, Levine is still looking to recruit members and simply focus on ensuring an enjoyable experience for the members.


The group meets in Togo Salmon Hall room 118 every Wednesday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. More information on the choir can be found online at www.parkinsonschorus.ca.

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