Written by Beatrice Lucchesi, Founder and President of Music for Dementia.
MFD’s socials are a chance for volunteers to gather, get to know each other, and enjoy fun activities, such as playing music together. During MFD’s most recent social, we decided to gather to complete the Playlist for Students course through a UK charity, Playlists for Life (link below). The workshop allowed us to better understand how meaningful music affects dementia patients and how to begin creating playlists for them. This post is a summary of the workshop with added personal insight and experiences. If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to visit the Playlist for Life website and register for their workshop.
The course begins with the story of Harry, who is very unresponsive due to advanced dementia but with music “he has become the person he was before”. While listening to music with his wife, he sings along with a smile and seems to be engaged as she prompts him to remember episodes of their life together. This is a very powerful scene, which embodies the power of music in stimulating patients suffering from dementia. Further, music offers a great opportunity for loved ones, such as Harry’s wife, to continue to find a point of connection with the person suffering from dementia and enjoy moments together. The burden of dementia on family and caregivers is often overlooked; due to its nature dementia also weighs heavily on loved ones. Music can be effective in offering relief from this burden, even if momentarily. Performing is in fact a great way for volunteers to find common ground with residents suffering from dementia, as it offers a point of discussion and puts the listeners in a more present state and uplifted mood. It is so rewarding to see residents perk up, smile, and enjoy the present moment thanks to my performances.
“We all have a playlist of a life…[it is] available to everybody”. This phrase explains why music should be incorporated into every patient’s daily dementia care: every person has meaningful songs, and every person can easily access music. Unlike pills and medical treatments, music is free, readily available at all times, and has no side effects. Music is the easiest and fastest tool we can use to help someone cope with a dementia diagnosis. Music is not a cure and is not always guaranteed to produce a positive response. However, music that is meaningful to a person’s life can significantly improve their mood, decrease stress and anxiety, help the person become more present, and offer a point of connection with caregivers and loved ones. Personally, I witness these effects to some degree every time I volunteer and play songs the patients are familiar with and enjoy; the reactions are instant and really touching. On the other side, it is important to stop playing music when it brings back negative memories and elicits negative responses such as frustration, tears from sadness, or anger. I perceive this to be the only real side effect of music therapy, which can be counteracted with the interruption of the unwelcomed song, with no further consequences. I always wonder what my personal playlist will be when I am older, which songs will elicit happy memories or sad ones, and which songs I will remember as being most significant for me. Perhaps we should all begin to build our life playlists in view of the future.
Even though these are great starting points, building a playlist is not as easy as it sounds. Personally, I learned this the hard way by realizing simple truths that may not be as intuitive at first. For example, one cannot simply ask a person suffering from dementia what their favorite song might be or what song their parents used to sing to them, because chances are that they will not remember. This is especially an obstacle for residents in memory care units, who are already at advanced stages of the disease. One way to address this challenge is to reach out to the families and caregivers with questions about the person’s life and music preferences. Although it was still challenging to find out useful information even after reaching out to the families MFD is increasing its efforts to build personalized playlists for each resident.
The Playlist for Student course also gave background knowledge about dementia and the impact of music on the brain. I found most touching the fact that music is one of the first stimuli that connects us to the outside world when we are still in the womb and can be recognized in the form of our mother’s heartbeat. The ability to respond to music is the first to appear in all humans and the last to disappear in people suffering from dementia. In fact, I notice that many of the residents I perform for are not able to form full and comprehensible sentences in conversation. However, as soon as I play their favorite song, they sing along with all the correct words. The ability to form sentences is in fact preserved through music, which has been shown to activate multiple areas of the brain at once and perhaps preserve connections that would otherwise be lost through dementia. We can relate to this even if not affected by dementia. Often, when a personally meaningful song comes on, it instantly brings me back to a certain moment in my life that has been ingrained in my memory alongside that song. This is the basis behind Music For Dementia: using meaningful music to bypass the damage brought on by dementia allows patients to relive moments associated with that specific song, or at least perceive positive feelings.
Finally, the course explains how anyone, especially volunteers and caregivers, can begin to make a playlist for someone suffering from dementia. Many of the points they touch upon are in line with the playlist guide I compiled on the MFD website. Since directly asking patients and caregivers about music preferences has not been an effective strategy for the patients MFD has worked with, we rely on trial and error to build playlists for our music sessions. We began by choosing songs that were popular during the young adulthood years of most residents and watched for their reactions. We found that often their favorite songs were those that their parents probably listened to or sang to them, such as “You Are My Sunshine”… an all-time favorite during our sessions. During a recent volunteering session, I experienced an amazing reaction to a song I performed. I was introduced to a resident suffering from dementia who is Italian like me. I was ecstatic and instantly looked up the cords to a popular Italian song, “Volare”, also well known in the United States. As soon as I sang it, I saw her eyes light up and a big smile stretch across her face. She could barely speak but after listening to the song she had become much more engaged and responsive. However, the biggest surprise was the reaction of all the other residents, who started to sing along to the most popular verse in Italian, despite not knowing the language. You can find the recording of this performance on our website; even though residents are not in the video to respect their privacy, you can hear them sing along in the background! This is proof to me that music transcends language even in people suffering from dementia.
Music is by no means a miraculous cure for dementia, but it has repeatedly shown to bring amazingly positive responses in patients suffering from dementia and has proved to be an effective coping mechanism both for patients and their caregivers. I hope you enjoyed reading about the Playlist for Students workshop and my personal experiences while volunteering. If you are not yet part of MFD, I hope this article will motivate you to join and contribute with your own experiences as a volunteer. I look forward to the day in which personalized music will be fully available and integrated into daily dementia care.