Music and Dementia

Create Playlists to Spark Memories and Ease Anxiety

Creating Dementia Playlists

What was your favorite song the summer of your senior year in high school? What song played during your first dance at your wedding reception? Did your college have a fight song?

It’s not surprising if you can recall the answers to these questions with ease; strong memories are tied to music at important moments in our lives, and songs from the past help build rich recollections.

For a person floating in a sea of dementia – where memories and even one’s sense of identity are foggy – familiar music can be a life preserver that pulls them, even momentarily, back to a sense of security, happiness, and self.

Recent research has shown that while dementia increasingly impedes verbal communication and associated thought processes, the brain structures involved in processing musical information often remain intact. In addition, being exposed to familiar music can deliver numerous, almost-medicinal benefits to dementia patients, including a reduction in anxiety and agitation, and an increase in likelihood to speak and interact.

Simply put, a familiar song can spark something in the brain that momentarily brings your loved one back to himself or herself, and this alone can make him or her feel safer, more relaxed, and more open to social interaction.

So how can you make the most of this knowledge? An excellent way is to create a playlist of songs for your loved one. It may take a little legwork, but the chance to see the spark of recognition and share in a happy, relaxed moment could make it all worth it.

Get started with these steps:

1. Do your research.

Studies show that the most evocative music comes from the timeframe of a person’s mid-teens to early-20s. If your loved one is in advanced stages of dementia, you might not be able to ask them about his or her favorite songs. Instead, you may have to do some detective work to create your playlist, looking for clues based on the person’s life. For example, did they attend church and have favorite hymns? Did they go dancing in their youth, and if so, what bands might they have heard? Did they ever play an instrument and leave sheet music around? What about a favorite tv show or radio show? All of these can help you build your playlist. It’s recommended to create a large list of 50-100 songs so that you have plenty of new songs for each listening session, but you can start small and build from there.

2. Create your list.

An Apple iPod is an ideal and easy way to create a portable playlist that you can use to play the music, whether your loved one is in a care facility or at home. Playlists for Life, an organization specializing in this topic, offers detailed “how to use the technology” tips on their site, along with more research and getting-started questions. Once your list is built, you can use headphones with the iPod, although the ideal setup allow both you and your loved one to hear the music at the same time, in the hopes of social interaction spurred by the songs. If your loved one seems to respond well, you can request that listening sessions are added to his or her care plan if living in an Alzheimer’s care facility.

3. Plan your listening session.

Start with a 15-minute session and prepare yourself to be mentally engaged during the exercise. While some passive listening can be beneficial (allowing your loved one to sit quietly and enjoy the music), it’s important not to miss out on this opportunity to reconnect with your loved one in case he or she is able to interact during the exercise. In the earlier stages of dementia, it should be easier to gauge response to the music, and a person may begin to speak if he or she is still able to do so. Later in the dementia process, you may simply watch for signs such as tapping a foot or moving a hand. Any response is a window back to your loved one, and can benefit you almost as much as them. Take the opportunity to smile, speak, and give physical affection while sharing in the happy memories.

4. Evaluate the response, tweak your list, and plan the next session.

These moments of recollection created by familiar music can help your loved one by reducing anxiety, agitation, and the stress of feeling lost or disconnected. While it is important to be on the look out for adverse affects (like a song causing a negative reaction, or increased self-awareness leading to worry about being in an unfamiliar location), overall the recorded results of music therapy have been overwhelmingly positive. In fact, your playlist can be used to help your loved one through difficult times of the day, such as 15-minutes before a difficult or upsetting task or before the sundown blues. You’ll want to keep the list fresh, as no one likes the same music over and over, and stick to the timeframe (too much passive listening can cause the music to become ambient noise). But know that your efforts may be greatly benefitting your loved one’s quality of life and, for a moment, helping them remember themselves and some of the best times of their lives.


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Megan Hammons lives in the Central Texas countryside just outside of Austin, pursuing her love for copywriting after a career in high-tech marketing. She is part of a large, diverse family and enjoys spending time with the multiple generations living in her community.

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