An Introduction to Complementary Therapies

From pain to digestive symptoms, trouble sleeping to anxiety and other emotional stressors, patients with life-limiting illnesses face a number of varying issues and concerns. With the long list of symptoms any given patient might be experiencing, board-certified hospice care providers like Dr. Patrick Fitzgibbon (or “Dr. Fitz” as his colleagues and patients come to know him as) like to keep as many tools in their “tool kit” as possible.
Whether it be aromatherapy, a relaxing massage, a soothing tune, or the presence of an animal’s unconditional love, complementary therapies help to augment care beyond pharmacological treatment. The goal is to give every Faith Hospice patient the highest quality of life possible by “caring for mind, body, and spirit,” Fitzgibbon emphasized. “It's about whole-person care,” he added. By offering a variety of complementary therapy options, Faith Hospice can provide as many opportunities as possible to achieve just that.

Why Complementary Therapies?

Perhaps the more suitable question is, “Why not?” With the number of life-limiting illnesses and symptoms, conventional pharmacological treatments will not always provide adequate symptom management and may end up producing their own adverse effects.
The rise in misuse and addiction of opioids is also causing an increase in patients’ reluctance toward taking them, making alternative treatment options more sought-after. There’s also the fact that hospice care services will continue to rise in demand due to the number of adults over 65 rapidly progressing over the next ten years. Dr. Fitzgibbon noted how, with the Baby Boomer population, non-traditional therapies would not only be accepted but expected.


“When we’re trying to take care of people and keep them comfortable, why wouldn’t we use all the tools available to us to do so?”

— Dr. Fitzgibbon

Finally, if you take a moment to look at pain as one example, it is a pretty broad term. There are a number of types of pain and associated issues that a patient could be experiencing: from Nociceptive pain (physical damage to tissue like bone, skin, muscles, or organs), to neuropathic pain (nerve dysfunction), to central pain (resulting from damage to the central nervous system). Not to mention total pain, which is a combination of any or all of these things. Care providers have about twenty to twenty-five prescription pain medications to use, and when you consider the above list, that hardly seems like enough. So when asked, “Why use complementary therapies?” Dr. Fitzgibbon reiterated how, “When we’re trying to take care of people and keep them comfortable, why wouldn’t we use all the tools available to us to do so?”

Types of Complementary Therapies

More and more research has shown that smells can trigger emotions and comfort in a whole different modality than traditional treatment methods. They can be essential components to actual treatment and relief itself — having been shown to decrease pain, anxiety, and depression and promote an increased sense of well-being. Dr. Fitzgibbon noted circumstances with actively-dying patients: “When a patient is transitioning to actively-dying, many will consider that room, that place, to be sacred. Aromatherapy creates not only a calming effect but helps to set that mood and tone.”
Music Therapy
Whether bringing back a fond memory with a familiar song or creating a calming environment with comforting tones, music offers patients relief from emotional distress.  Music is part of our fabric of being and can reach recesses of the soul that words often cannot.  Whether playing quietly at a bedside or leading a sing-along for patients and their families, music makes a huge impact.
Massage Therapy
Massage eases tension, stiffness, and provides pain relief. It can also ease edema (swelling) and fluid retention. Simple touch alone can provide comfort and ease anxiety at a time of life when a loving touch is often not readily given.
Pet Therapy
An animal’s unconditional love and presence offer peace and a welcoming distraction for hospice patients at our inpatient facility at Trillium Woods. Interaction with a friendly animal has been shown to help decrease depression and anxiety and release endorphins that produce a calming effect. There’s just something unexplainable about what the touch of a dog’s soft fur or a wagging tail does to the soul.
Virtual Reality (VR)
A VR experience allows patients to travel to places they’ve never been, check items off their bucket list, or simply engage in a relaxing session — transporting them to a place where being a hospice patient is not a part of their reality. This provides a therapeutic experience that research has shown can also have pain relief benefits.

It Doesn’t Stop There.

It is estimated that only ten percent of Medical Directors in the United States are board-certified in hospice and palliative medicine. At Faith Hospice, our current team consists of seven board-certified hospice and palliative care doctors. That is a significantly high concentration of expert hospice and palliative care providers dedicated to achieving the highest quality of life possible by using complementary therapies alongside conventional medicines or treatments.
“Yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy,” Dr. Fitzgibbon begins to list, “We don’t want to limit ourselves. There’s lots of room for anyone else who is willing and available to provide complementary therapy options. Our team is always keeping our eyes and ears open for other possibilities. As our doctors travel both domestically and abroad and we see alternative methods being used that are affecting patients positively, if a patient inquires or is willing, we’re open to bringing those options in. It’s all on the table. Why wouldn't we?”

Volunteers Make it Possible

Without the support of a dedicated team of volunteers and volunteer coordinators, providing these complementary therapies to patients would not be possible. Whether bringing music to someone’s bedside, providing pet visits, or conducting a VR experience, the compassion, comfort, and care provided to patients at their end-of-life make an incredible impact on patients and their families.
If you have a heart for helping others, head to to learn more about how to become a Faith Hospice volunteer and make a lasting difference in someone’s life.