Skip to content

Complementary therapies: When traditional medicine isn’t enough

As volunteer coordinator for Emmanuel Hospice in West Michigan, Jackie Chandler hears lots of stories from her team in the field, including one patient who wanted to try something other than prescription drugs to combat her pain. The hospice team was able to offer a whole slate of options from an increasingly popular set of alternatives commonly known as “complementary therapies” that go beyond pain medication.

“She was able to choose from a list that included massage, acupuncture, acupressure, essential oils, journaling, music therapy and more,” Chander said. “In the end, she felt more comfortable emotionally and physically — with more control over her care.”

Indeed, complementary therapies are becoming more and more popular among hospice providers. According to one study, just half of all hospice organizations employed complementary therapies in 2004. Today, virtually all provide at least some complementary therapies.

“Complementary therapies offer options to patients and their families that are outside the scope of traditional medicine,” Chandler said. “While we certainly provide medication to treat pain and discomfort, we’ve discovered that these complementary options can also do much to relieve pain, anxiety and stress.”

Feedback from trained volunteers and certified therapists reinforces scientific evidence that something as simple as a foot or hand massage can have transforming effects. Same for acupuncture and acupressure, which originated centuries ago in the Far East, but are now widely accepted in other locales and cultures.

As for music therapy, studies show that it can provide a wide array of benefits, including improved respiration, lower blood pressure, improved cardiac output, reduced heart rate and more. Hospice’s music therapists typically visit with a guitar in arm and some percussion instruments in tow, in case the patient feels like participating in the process. Therapists also rely on a detailed psychosocial assessment that helps to capture individual patients’ musical preferences.

A patient born in the early 20th century, for example, might warm especially to music from the 1940s and ’50s, and so the therapists are knowledgeable in songs from those eras. Chandler points out that music performed for a single patient can have a ripple effect if it seeps out of the room and down a hallway.

“Multiple people can benefit inadvertently if the sound wanders beyond the room,” she said.

At Emmanuel, staff members are excited about the prospects that essential oils are bringing to the table.

“It’s a new offering for us, and we’re excited to launch it,” said Chandler, noting that lavender, frankincense and lemon oils are used primarily in diffusers to create a mist that can help create a feeling of relaxation.

The same soothing comforts can be accomplished by having a gentle pet visit a patient. And then there’s journaling, part of a larger option available through a free participatory website titled “Be Remembered,” where patients can busy themselves in creating fond memories of their lives.

“It all boils down to hospice caring for the mind, body and spirit,” Chandler said. “Complementary therapies lay down a whole new layer of options.”