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Sarah Metcalfe, Chief Executive of Playlist for Life, blogs exclusively for Unforgettable.

Music that gives you that flashback feeling can be a lifeline if you get dementia. This simple piece of knowledge is becoming more widely known – even at the highest level.

Recently, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said in an important speech to the Kings Fund (one of the biggest medical think-tanks in the world):

“I must pay tribute to the pioneering work of the charity Playlist for Life. Their work creating personal playlists for people with dementia led to a 60 per cent reduction in the need for psychotropic medication in one care home. This is the kind of cheap, easy-to-use social prescription that I’m fully behind”

Playlist for Life was founded in 2013 by writer and BBC broadcaster Sally Magnusson, to share the power of personal playlists to help families living with dementia. This was something Sally’s family discovered by accident when caring for their mother, Mamie.

They would ease bathtime by singing ‘It’s a lovely day tomorrow’. Raise a smile with ‘Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus’. 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.

When Mamie died, Sally discovered that the power of the tunes that are deeply connected to someone’s life  was in fact a recognised phenomenon backed up by decades of research, but not routinely shared with families in the UK.

“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.”

Sally founded Playlist for Life in 2013 to change that. We provide tools and training to help people create a unique ‘playlist for life’ – all the tunes that are meaningful to an individual gathered together, often on an MP3 player – and then show them how to use it to strengthen relationships and manage symptoms.

Getting started

Finding meaningful tunes by exploring a person’s life story is called ‘being 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

Tools and support

We have lots of free tools and support to help you make and use 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 our online shop for £10.
  • The Playlist for Life app for iOS: This turns your 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 but at the moment you need an iPhone and premium Spotify account to use it. We hope to fundraise next year to develop an android version.
  • BBC Music Memories: We helped the BBC to develop this ‘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. If you get a reaction, click ‘like’ and keep looking. At the end you can print out all your ‘liked’ tunes as a shopping list for you (or someone else) to load onto an MP3 player later.
  • Playlist for Life Help Points: We have a growing network of Help Points across the UK based in existing organisations like churches, libraries and carers centres. We provide free training and resources so that local volunteers can help anyone who gets stuck finding the right tunes or using technology. Find out if there is a Help Point near you on their website.

Using music safely

Personal music can bring powerful emotions. This is a great gift, and a great responsibility. If someone becomes distressed, stop the session and do not play that tune again.  We call these Red Flag Songs. If it keeps happening, take a break from music for a while.

Remember though, tears in themselves are not always bad. Are they tears of distress – or some other feeling? Hold their hand, be with them in the moment. In this way music can be become an opportunity for greater closeness.

Got your playlist? 5 things you might want to try

1 – Listen together, to reminisce and connect. It’s a great way to spend a visit.

2 – Try listening half an hour before something difficult– like bathtime or getting dressed in the morning. Research shows it can make these times easier.

3 – Keep the playlist handy – and charged up! Make it one of the things to check before you go out: keys, purse, playlist. That way you can use it whenever you need it.

4 – Keep adding to the playlist. You might be adding tunes months or years after you start.

5 – Why not get involved with other music activities, like a choir or live music? It’s a great way to get out and have some fun.

Music – in all its forms – is neurologically special. That is why it can be so useful for people living with dementia. Playlist for Life is proud to be part of the wider #Music2020 campaign, backed by the Utley Foundation, working to ensure that music is available to everyone with dementia by the end of 2020.

It is great to know the Health Secretary is listening and that music may soon be a common part of dementia care. In the meantime, we can all start using the power of music now, making our own playlist, and knowing how to use someone else’s if they need it.