COVID-19 is drawing attention to palliative care in LTC homes

by Deb Bartlett

Until recently, when a long-term care resident’s health took a turn for the worse, they were sent to hospital, where they would be cared for on the appropriate unit, possibly on the palliative or supportive care unit. Regardless of the unit, the patient received palliative care from hospital staff who were trained in providing palliative care.

As the availability of hospital beds became a problem, more long-term care residents stayed in place, and received palliative care from the staff. While there are positive aspects to not moving a sick, frail, elderly resident to be cared for by strangers at the end of their life, the flip side is that many long-term care staff have not been trained to provide palliative and end-of-life care, and the homes themselves may not be properly equipped to provide supportive care.

In the past few years, more long-term care homes are acknowledging that their residents are receiving palliative care. Many homes have created beautiful palliative care suites, in which residents die in a homey space surrounded by their loved ones. Many include an extra bed or cot for a family member to stay around the clock. Room 217 has seen an increase in staff seeking some training on providing palliative care, and specifically how the integration of music can support not only the person dying, but also their loved ones, and even staff.

Music has many benefits in palliative care. To help front-line caregivers (long-term care physicians, nurses, PSWs), volunteers, and friends and family understand how incorporating music into the provision of palliative care, Room 217 has created a Guide for Using Music in Hospice Palliative Care. It has been written in sections to simplify use according to the caregivers.

Music changes the physical environment, and helps all caregivers address the dying person’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Music can help everyone in that space to express whatever emotions they have - fear, joy, anger, or gratitude. For the caregivers, music fills space when words may escape them, and acts as a bridge for connection. Used intentionally, music can distract the dying person from pain, and may relieve them of physical symptoms like agitation, restlessness, shortness or breath, and insomnia. Breath can be synced to music to encourage regular respiration.

Music can also fill space. Even when no one is in the room with the dying person, music can create a peaceful ambiance, and a presence in the room. It is this final point that makes music such an important part of end-of-life care during these times of COVID-19. It is gut wrenching, but people are dying without their loved ones near in ICUs and long-term care homes across Canada. Room 217’s music was designed for palliative care; having our albums available means frontline healthcare workers can alleviate symptoms and assure families that their loved ones are not alone.

Room 217’s music collections were created to support caregivers. In addition to being a tool for them to use for the dying person, the albums are ideal for self-care, helping caregivers to de-stress and relax. Music also has a role in grief and bereavement. There are many ways that caregivers can support all care partners with music. For easy reference, check out our infographics on music in palliative care. There are four in total: Using Music in Hospice Palliative Care; 10 Ways to Use Music When Your Loved One is Dying; Room 217's Music Collections 1-4; and Meeting 7 HPC Clinical Goals with Music. We've designed these to be downloaded and printed.