Music can be a lifeline for people living with dementia. We all have a soundtrack for our lives and the power that music can have for giving us enjoyment, comfort and connection to our past experiences is well researched.
Journalist and broadcaster Sally Magnusson founded ‘Playlist for Life’ in 2013 to promote the benefits of personal playlists to help families living with dementia, prompted by her experience of caring for her mother, Marnie.
In her book, ‘Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything’ Sally speaks candidly about her experiences: “When I was looking after my mother, I would have given anything for someone to say, ‘Try this. It’s not a cure but it can help. You can still have moments of happiness and flashes of joy’….no-one says that very often to families living with dementia.”
She recalls that she would sing with Marnie to make bath-time easier to manage. They would think of songs Mamie used to enjoy and play them on their laptops – and Mamie would join in, restored to herself for a while.
Playlist for Life provides tools and training to help carers and professionals create unique playlists for individuals, gathering together all the tunes that are meaningful for the person. Personalised playlists strengthen relationships and help to cultivate deep connections, restoring identity, reducing agitation and easing anxiety.
They would think of songs Mamie used to enjoy and play them on their laptops – and Mamie would join in, restored to herself for a while.
To explore a person’s life story and gather together songs for their personal playlist, you need to be a music detective.
Below are some music detective tips to help you get started:
- The Memory Bump – songs from when a person was aged 10-30.
- Inheritance Tracks – songs associated with important people in someone’s life.
- Heritage Tunes – related to where someone is from, their faith or religion, their family background, local dialects and languages
Playlist for Life has a range of free tools and support to help with creating and using playlists:
- 100 Years of Song: Volunteer Music Detective Peter Grech compiled lists of the top 100 songs from each of the last 100 years and we have published them in a book. You can download each decade free from the Playlist for Life website or buy the hardcopy from ‘Playlist for Life’ for £10.
- The Playlist for Life app for iOS: This turns a mobile phone into a Music Detective, helping you to find specific tunes or listen to specialist playlists – like the 100 Years of Song. The app is free.
- BBC Music Memories: The BBC has developed a ‘finding-tool’ to help create a starter-playlist in 15 minutes. Listen to snippets of tunes organised by decade, genre and specialist tunes like TV themes.
Personal music can elicit powerful emotions. This is a precious gift, and an important responsibility. If someone becomes distressed, it’s advisable to stop the session and avoid playing that tune again.
However, sadness is an authentic emotion, experienced by people with dementia just like us all. Emotions have a meaning and tears can fulfil a very helpful function. Sometimes people will cry as a way to express connection with a deeply poignant memory. Hold their hand, be with them in the moment. In this way music can be healing and an opportunity for greater closeness.
Once you have created a playlist for the person you are caring for, try out different ways of using music to ease the passage of the day and uplift the person’s emotions – and yours too.
Here are some ideas:
- Listen together, to reminisce and connect.
- Start playing music half an hour before something that might be difficult, for example showering or getting dressed in the morning.
- Keep the playlist to hand so that you can use it whenever you need it.
- Add to the person’s playlist as you discover new tunes and music that has meaning for the person you are caring for.
- Involve other members of the family to share in the joy and meaning of the person’s favourite songs
- Get involved in other music activities, such as a choir, Singing for the Brain, the Memory Choir. You can find music groups and activities on the ‘Music for Dementia’ Musical Map of the UK.
Please get in touch if you would like some advice about music activities: firstname.lastname@example.org