Palliative care with music

UWS and Liverpool Hospital collaborate: Bernadette CajigalIt helps palliative care patients with her music. Picture: Chris Lane
UWS and Liverpool Hospital collaborate: Bernadette CajigalIt helps palliative care patients with her music. Picture: Chris Lane

Western Sydney University students have discovered first hand the health benefits that palliative-care patients get from music therapy.

One of the students, Bernadette CajigalIt, said it was part of her university course, a Master of Creative Music Therapy, to get professional experience.

She visits Liverpool Hospital and Camden Hospital twice a week and has been volunteering since July.

She couldn't talk but she tapped her bed and it reminded us of a tune. I realised it was The Blue Danube so I played it for her – and she looked straight into my eyes.

Bernadette CajigalIt

“I think the program has gone really well,” she said.

“I’ve got positive feedback from staff and patients so far.

“The palliative-care patients do seem to really benefit in improved quality of life from our work.

“Some of the things we do with patients is to help them pass on  their legacy to their family – such as through songwritng. It can help them to communicate. 

“I also try to help some patients who are unconscious or who’ve gone into a deep sleep through breathing support and breath techniques.

“It also works for patients who may have had a tough physiotherapy session and  need to get their breathing pattern back to normal.

“Sometimes it will include me singing for them and their family or playing them music. But music therapists are much more than just a jukebox.”

Ms CajigalIt, 30, said she became intrigued with the power of music therapy a few years ago through helping someone in her own family.

At 23 she went to the Philippines with her mother where they visited her aunt who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“I saw my aunt was tapping on the side of her bed and it reminded us of a tune,” she said.

“She was non-verbal and it was difficult for the whole family to communicate with her.

“I found out what the tune was so I played it for her – it was The Blue Danube, the opening song from Strictly Ballroom.

“As soon as I started playing it she looked into my eyes.

”It was something she danced to and listened to when she was younger so it was amazing to find this piece of music bring her back.

“It was so powerful being able to bring her into that moment, to be present with all of us when the rest of the time it was so difficult.

“At that stage I didn’t know about music therapy and then when I found out I could do it professionally, I decided to make a career out of it. That was my first experience of it. Music can help people in rehab situations. It can heal but it’s not a miracle worker.”

And since then Ms CajigalIt has not wanted to do anything else.

During her time volunteering she’s had the opportunity to make connections with several patients.

“There was a patient who expressed they’d forgot about the joy of music and they told me they’d begun singing again. A lot of the patients forget the things they love and it’s nice to see music remind of them of their most prized memories and passions,” she said.

But it comes with challenges, too. “I’ve never worked in a hospital setting before so it was hard to get used to,” she said.

“We like to look at research and come up with a plan that’s beneficial but it’s also about thinking on your feet. Once I had to make up a song on the spot.

“So far I haven’t been aware whether any of my patients have died. Sometimes they’re transferred to another ward or hospital. However, I’m prepared – I know I’m working with palliative-care patients. Mostly I don’t have regular long-term patients. There’s only been one I’ve had the whole time.”

Western Sydney University’s Dr Alison Short said the program was valuable for patients who were withdrawn, depressed, anxious or in pain.

“A large hospital can feel very intimidating and un-home-like for patients and families navigating the final weeks of life,” she said.

“Music can provide an emotional release and it can also help patients and their families share their emotions and reflections.”