Hospice Basics
July 17, 2017

Complementary Therapies Increase Comfort, Well-Being of Hospice Patients

VITAS caretaker playing guitar for hospice patient

Studies suggest that complementary and alternative therapies (CAT) enhance quality of care for patients nearing the end of life. Some types of CAT are associated with a lessening of symptoms, including anxiety and pain, and improvements in mood and sense of control. Acupuncture and “gentle touch” therapies like massage, reiki and reflexology have been shown to reduce pain and nausea. Research also shows that music and pet therapies reduce stress and, for some patients with memory disorders, generate positive emotional responses.

A 2007 National Home and Hospice Care Survey (NHHCS) on the use of complementary and alternative therapies in hospice showed that such therapies may provide another avenue to address the hospice goal of improving quality of life at the end of life. The survey showed:

  • 41.8% of hospice care providers offered CAT services, had a CAT provider on staff or under contract, or both
  • Among hospice care providers offering CAT:
    • 72% offered massage
    • 70% offered supportive group therapy
    • 62% provided music therapy
    • 59% used pet therapy
    • 53% provided guided imagery or relaxation

VITAS provides complementary and alternative therapy services for our patients.

Common Complementary and Alternative Therapies

  • Acupuncture/Acupressure
  • Aromatherapy
  • Art therapy
  • Chiropractic and osteopathic manipulations
  • Deep breathing/Relaxation techniques
  • Massage therapy
  • Meditation
  • Music therapy
  • Pet therapy
  • Yoga/Pilates/Movement therapies

Key Findings

“Simple Touch” Therapies Ease Pain, Emotional Distress

  • A 2008 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine showed that advanced cancer patients in moderate to severe pain showed statistically significant improvements in pain relief, physical and emotional distress, and quality of life after 2 weeks of massage or simple touch therapy.
  • Massage, reiki and other therapeutic touch therapies have been found to have physiological and psychological effects, influencing neuroendocrine functioning and reducing stress and pain, and ultimately promoting comfort and well-being. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine® 2015, Vol. 32(1) 90-100
  • A study analysis suggested that therapeutic massage over an extended end-of-life period offers enhanced benefit to terminally ill patients. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine®Volume 26 Number 4 August/September 2009 246-253

Music Therapy Decreases Anxiety, Promotes Relaxation

In hospice care, music therapy is a powerful tool for physical, emotional and spiritual care. A 2005 study conducted by the music department at the State University of New York showed that music therapy can:

  • Decrease anxiety and pain
  • Promote relaxation
  • Facilitate communication
  • Provide support in life review and legacy work

Music therapists assess the strengths and needs of the patient and design a plan of treatment that includes singing, moving to and/or listening to live, patient-preferred music in individual, group and/or family sessions. Music therapy provides the most benefit to patients who:

  • Lack social interaction or sensory stimulation
  • Experience pain and symptoms that are difficult to control through traditional medical interventions
  • Feel anxious or are affected by dementia
  • Look for a concrete way to cope or to define or articulate feelings or thoughts
  • Face communication problems due to physical or intellectual impairments
  • Need spiritual support, possibly involving other family members
  • Enjoy music to enhance their quality of life or maintain dignity 

Animal Therapy Provides Documented Health Benefits

Numerous scientific studies support the conventional wisdom that people derive health benefits from having pets. Owning a pet has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, reduce stress, decrease loneliness and depression, and facilitate social interactions among people.

Many studies also highlight the physical and emotional benefits of pet interaction for the ill and elderly. A 2014 survey analysis by a Pittsburgh cancer center indicated that therapy dog visits during chemotherapy reduced patients’ anxiety and depression. American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Medicine® 2014, Vol. 31(4) 420-421

These effects are particularly noticeable in patients with dementia. 

  • In A 2013 study in the Annals of Long Term Care, over a 10-week period of pet therapy, dementia patients:
    • Experienced a slowing in the progression of dementia-related symptoms, including agitation, aggression and depression
    • Had improved or less degraded verbal skills
  • A 2013 randomized controlled trial found that animal therapy may delay the progression of symptoms such as agitation, aggression, and depression in nursing home residents with dementia


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