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Personalised meaningful music for people with dementia

08 September 2022
Volume 31 · Issue 16

Music plays such an important role in our lives. It is a powerful medium that lights up the brain like a firework display as soon as it hits the ear, stimulating many parts of the brain at once. We all have those songs in our lives that mean something to us, our ‘Desert Island Discs’ or our soundtrack to the key events of our lives. Research has found that music has many benefits for our mental health and wellbeing. We know how music can lift our mood. This is due to the release of dopamine, which can rise by as much as 9% when we play a song that we enjoy (Salimpoor et al, 2011). Music as a therapy can also help with symptoms of depression (Maratos et al, 2008) and can reduce the symptoms of anxiety (Gutiérrez and Camarena, 2015)

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) produced a report that highlighted the benefits of music for people living with dementia. These included a reduction in anxiety and depression, a reduction in agitation or behavioural issues, and beneficial effects on speech, verbal fluency and autobiographical memory. With these positive effects came the all-important decrease in the use of anti-psychotic medication (Fancourt and Finn, 2019).

Personalised meaningful music is key in this instance. This is music that has been a part of a person's life, based on personal preference (Gerdner, 1992). If a person living with dementia is unable to communicate personal preference, then selections can be made by a knowledgeable family member or discovered through ‘musical detective skills’. Personalised meaningful music can help improve speech content and fluency, along with decreasing stress hormones and improving overall wellbeing in people with dementia (Brotons and Koger, 2000).

UK-based charity ‘Playlist for Life’ has a mission that every person living with dementia should have their own personalised playlist of ‘meaningful music’. Music offers a potential lifeline for people with dementia, their carers and loved ones, with far more benefits than other interventions, such as chemical interventions, which often come with negative impacts such as side-effects. A systematic review concluded that, of all the non-pharmacological interventions used in dementia, music therapy has convincing evidence of effectiveness in reducing both the behavioural and psychological symptoms (Abraha et al, 2017).

Gerdner (1992) systematically investigated the use of personalised meaningful music as an intervention for agitation in people with dementia, finding a visible reduction in agitation when listening to the music and in the hour following this intervention.

Anxiety is closely related to agitation. Without intervention, anxiety can very quickly escalate to agitation. It is recommended that healthcare staff, carers or loved ones use music playlists as a form of therapeutic scheduling, such as before noted periods of distress, before difficult times or activities. This significantly lowers anxiety levels (Gerdner, 1992).

Creating a playlist with someone living with dementia is a valuable experience. You should look for the music that is personal and evokes fond memories or positive emotional reactions. It should include the tunes that give a ‘flashback feeling’ whenever they hear them. Start with the ‘memory bump’, songs they would have listened to between ages 10 and 30 (psychologists have proven that we create more memories between these ages). Playlist for Life has many free resources on creating a playlist, help finding the tracks, best ways to listen and when to make the most of music (