Music: the magical lifeline for those living with dementia

It’s National Playlist Day this week, so which songs are on the soundtrack to your life?

Music therapy is one of the most powerful tools to help people live well with dementia and Playlist For Life is on a mission to help everyone choose the songs that mean most to them.

A study by Music For Dementia shows that music is the best type of therapy for improving behavioural and psychological symptoms. It reduces agitation and the need for medication in 67% of people with dementia.

The Power of Music report also states that singing in residential care homes can halve anxiety, and that people’s ability to respond to music, as well as engage with it and enjoy it, remains the same however severe their dementia. Music is such a personal thing, so the idea behind Playlist For Life is that you choose your favourite songs which could have a positive effect if you’re later diagnosed with dementia.

Credit: Shutterstock / LightField Studios

How music lights up your brain

Michael Timmons, executive director of Playlist for Life, tells Saga Exceptional: “For people living with dementia and their carers, listening to a playlist of personally meaningful music can improve wellbeing and quality of life, strengthen relationships, and help ease some of the pressures on caring.

“The tracks you inherit from your loved ones and tunes that remind you of special people are deep rooted in memory and can enrich your life. There’s an exciting shift happening now, with people taking this non-pharmacological intervention seriously and realising that music can be like medicine for some people. Everyone should have a playlist of the soundtrack to their life.”

Sarah Metcalfe, MD of the Utley Foundation and its Music For Dementia programme, tells Saga Exceptional: “Making a playlist is a fun thing to do. Right now, sit down as a family and you’ve got something that’s useful for the future and you’ve also had a really nice time in the here and now. It shouldn’t be a chore – you’ll find those moments of happiness as you connect.”

She continues: “Neurologists and psychologists have been looking at how music affects the brain for a number of decades and there are two things at play.

“If you and I were to listen to a piece of music and be brain scanned, our brains would light up like a fireworks display. There would be so many places that would be stimulated by listening, and that’s before you get into dancing or playing the piano. That means that if you are living with dementia or another condition, even if the brain is damaged the music can still reach those other areas. As a result, music continues to connect with people even if they have a progressive condition.

“The other thing is that some of the brain areas that are most affected by music are some of the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia.”

However important – or not – music has been to a person, it has the ability to stir up a host of memories. “We all know that flashback feeling when a tune makes you go back to the school disco, but it’s always on in the background, whether that’s an advert, a jingle or nursery rhymes,” says Metcalfe.

“Everybody’s musical identity is unique, and that can really help you to remain connected to them when it becomes more difficult to hold a conversation or engage with the world.”


Harnessing the power of Frank Sinatra

Matthew Seager is the writer of In Other Words, a play about a couple’s experience when one of them develops Alzheimer’s disease. One of the key themes is how music connects them – and, as the title suggests, Frank Sinatra’s songs bring them together.

“Music isn’t a magic wand, but it can be a magical lifeline,” Seager tells Saga Exceptional. He discovered just how powerful music can be for people living with dementia by chance in his early twenties. At the time, he didn’t know anyone who’d been diagnosed, but part of his university course involved a project to go into care homes and run sensory-stimulation workshops.

“We were focusing on touch and we’d brought in some scented cream to do some massage with the residents to see what that would do in terms of stimulating memory and social engagement,” he says.

“I decided that we should play some music the residents might have listened to in their twenties and thirties at the end of the session. I had no idea what would happen. We’d printed off songsheets to put on the table, thinking maybe if they recognised the song they might want to sing along. There were people who were non-verbal, others who were hallucinating and some who were shouting, and I remember thinking: ‘I want to get this out of the way as quickly as possible,’ because I didn’t know if I was being insensitive, assuming music would be a positive thing.”

Seager chose Frank Sinatra’s My Way for two reasons: he figures it would have been a song the audience would have listened to when they were younger – plus, it’s a proper banger. He wasn’t prepared for their reaction and describes it “as if a spell had been cast”.

It turns out no-one needed those song sheets. “The reaction was almost immediate. Silence fell and it felt like everyone in the room got up and started singing along to the music,” he says. “Music is such a transformative thing. I often use the bookcase analogy to describe it. Imagine our memories are in a bookcase made of rickety wood and on the top are the most recent ones. When you shake that bookcase, the newer memories fall off first. 

“But there’s a bookcase next to it where you hold your emotions that’s made of much sturdier wood and sometimes the memory gets shaken off, but the emotional connection remains. Music can remind you of something that happened to you that felt amazing, without necessarily remembering what that memory is.”

Both Metcalfe and Seager have chosen songs for their own playlists that stir up memories of particular times. Metcalfe says: “For me, it’s The Cure’s Friday I’m In Love because it reminds me of when I was at university and was on an exchange to Palermo in Sicily.”

Seager’s playlist is a mix of recent and older songs. “I listen to quite a lot of electronic music and there’s some drum and bass and Arctic Monkeys on there, along with Bobby Darin’s Beyond The Sea and Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon. It’s not my generation’s music, but it’s in the play so it provokes such a positive reaction,” he says. 

So what’s on your playlist? If you haven’t made one, do it today.

In Other Words, supported by Music For Dementia, is at the Arcola Theatre in London and will also go on tour.

"My Dad's playlist was his gift to me"

Hannah Verdier on finding her Dad’s Playlist For Life

“I stumbled across Dad’s playlist by mistake, but I know he wanted me to find it. One day I was having a clearout and found a piece of paper in my spare room drawer. As I unravelled it, I saw a list of song titles in my Dad’s familiar neat writing and realised what it was.

“Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia after a cycling accident and by the time I found that piece of paper he’d lost the ability to talk.

“But when I saw that list of songs I was floored. It was like he’d given me a gift and I made it into a Spotify playlist. There’d been so many times I wished I could ask Dad for advice and it was like all the answers were there. Six hours of songs and every single one (apart from Eminem’s My Name Is) was about love.

“The songs were so touching I wondered whether to show it to my Mum. It’s tough for her being a full-time carer to my Dad, but I know that listening to Luther Vandross and Hall and Oates gets her through the lonely evenings. The day I sent the playlist to her, she said Dad hadn’t spoken much, but the moment she put it on it he came to life, recalling all the old songs by Al Green, The Beach Boys and Earth, Wind and Fire.

“The songs on that list reminded me of precious moments with Dad. Sunday mornings were for listening to Motown and when I was tiny he taught me how to use the record player, putting the needle on the record carefully so I could play Smokey Robinson’s Tears Of A Clown. It’s still my favourite song.

“Now, when I go to see him, he doesn’t always wake up, but I take my mini speaker and play him those songs. Even if he doesn’t know I’m there, I can hopefully leave him with that good feeling that comes with hearing a great song. Everyone should have a Playlist For Life because I know how powerful music can be.”

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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