Music Therapy for Dignified Death

In the 16th century, the European Church developed a strain of music to be played specifically to people on their deathbeds. This, it was claimed, was of such sweet and pristine quality that the departing soul experienced a complete sense of serenity and peace in those final moments.

Thanatology music, as it was practiced back then, is today recognized as a branch of gerontology that deals with death and the process of dying. Signifying the end of the process of ageing, death has usually been a taboo subject. The term "dignified death" however, brings into focus the perception that the process of dying could be one of dignity, and in resonance with the wishes of the dying person.

The phrase "assisted suicide" denotes a way of dying that many European countries are trying to legalize as a fundamental right of all human beings. It implies that every person can choose the time and manner of her or his death when the individual realizes that prolonging life in an undignified manner is not worth it, says Dr Kalyan Bagchi, President of the Delhi-based Society for Gerontological Research (SGR).

Assisted suicide is legal in Germany as well as in Switzerland. A Zurich-based charity called Dignitas has helped many men and women who are terminally ill and/or acutely depressed to end their lives peacefully and with dignity, without breaking the law.

Dr Bagchi presented his insights on Thanatology music at a recent National Consultation in New Delhi, on the 'Impact of Music on the Mental Health of the Elderly'. The three-day meet was organized by the SGR to explore the beneficial effects of music therapy on elderly patients suffering from a wide range of disorders like depression, dementia, hypertension and cancer.

The European Church in the 16th century dealt with the issue in the most humane way possible during those times. The churches, especially in countries like Germany, immediately went about preparing their special music on being alerted by families of terminally ill patients, explains Dr Bagchi. "It was said that on playing this music, the lines of pain and suffering on the face of the patient completely eased and the transition to death was a peaceful one." According to him, this is an important aspect of healthcare that needs to be brought to the notice of specialists so that they can integrate music therapy into their treatment of terminally ill patients.

In the present legal structure in India, suicide is looked upon as a criminal act.

While the numbers of the ageing or greying population have gone up dramatically in India due to a variety of reasons including better healthcare and dietary factors, the quality of life has gone down as a result of industrialization, urbanization and western influence.

According to Nidhi Raj Kapoor of HelpAge India, the world today is facing a piquant situation - for the first time the number of elderly persons exceeds the child population. This, she stresses, could raise complex social and economic issues in India, where life expectancy has gone up from 20 years at the beginning of the 20th century to 62 years today.

Data compiled by HelpAge India reveals that while in France it took 120 years for the grey population to double from 7 to 14 per cent, in India the grey population doubled in just 25 years. At present, India has an ageing population of 77 million and by 2025, the country will have 177 million elderly people. According to Kapoor, it is only now that the country is beginning to look at the different problems affecting old people.

In this context, Dr Bagchi reiterates the importance of music therapy to ease the final journey of elderly persons in a peaceful manner. "It is necessary that the last stage of life of a human being should be eased. Living with the help of a machine is not considered a dignified process of dying."

In many Asian cultures, including India, the common ritual is to perform music associated with certain instruments invoking the name of the almighty when the person is on the verge of death. "This process has been found to give the dying person peace of mind and remove the fear of death which is the most fearful experience at the transit time," says Dr Bagchi.

Dr Mala Kapur Shankardass, social gerontologist and Secretary of SGR, goes a step further by saying that devotional music and bhajans promote the physical and emotional well-being of elderly persons. "Bhajans and devotional music, both vocal and instrumental, lead to the path of self-realization through which the highest spiritual truth in the simplest language of music is conveyed."

However, both Bagchi and Shankardass agree that much more research is required to understand the lasting impact of music on the human mind, especially with regard to promoting mental well-being in old age as well as opportunities for positive ageing.  


More by :  Nitin Jugran Bahuguna

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