Watching a loved one decline from dementia can be an awful, isolating and hopeless experience. But even while a patient loses cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering and reasoning—they may remain connected to their love of music.
Reddit user u/sportznut1000 says his wife works in hospice and took a class on better techniques to use with dementia patients:
Something she shared with me that stuck out was how patients with dementia when given a mp3 player with music personal to them (and headphones to avoid distractions) became [immersed] in the music and if even for just a few minutes could use the music to recall a happy moment in their life associated with that song. I guess the part of the brain that stores music is one of the strongest to succumb to dementia.
You might imagine what that could look like, but to see it in action is incredible. Check out this video by the Music & Memory organisation:
There is a push right now to make music more readily available for dementia patients with campaigns like the UK’s Music for Dementia 2020, which aims to make music available for everyone living with dementia by next year.
To make your own playlist, Music for Dementia’s website has some tips to get you started:
A personalised playlist can provide a source of comfort and enjoyment for individuals and helps to ensure that music-listening is person-centered. In thinking about designing playlists for people living with dementia, evidence suggests that there is a ‘memory bump’ for music. It appears that people living with dementia retain clearest memories for music they enjoyed and heard between roughly the ages of 10 and 30.
The more personalised the list, the better, so look for clues as to which specific songs or type of music will most resonate with the recipient. You may already have some ideas, but you can also ask other family members, go through old photos to see if they’d been to any favourite concerts, or look through their personal record or CD collection.
Music for Dementia recommends sitting with your loved one while they listen to the music, especially the first time, and watching carefully for their reaction.
This might be eyes opening or moving around, fingers or toes tapping, a change in facial expression. They might become more alert or speak. They might become more relaxed or more responsive. Put any song the person responds to onto the playlist.
Watch out for red flag songs—music is powerful. It can transport people to another time or place. That is a great gift, but you do not want to take someone back to a bad place. Tears are not always negative, but if someone becomes very agitated or distressed in response to a certain song, you should stop the session and discard that music. Remember to keep a note of red flag songs so that they are not played again.
Reddit user u/AdorableLime, who says they are a professional caretaker for the elderly, agrees with the benefits of music for dementia patients.
“Surprisingly, most of my patients never forgot their favourite songs from when they were younger, and they would even sing them along with the music,” u/AdorableLime says, “It’s one of the best way to stimulate their desire to live and get them to spend a fun time away from the daily stress of forgetting all the time who you are and where they are.”