Nursing studies

Music and dementia: how playlists can promote person-centred care

Learn how to promote sensitive, tailored use of music in care settings

Free training shows nursing students how to use the soundtrack of peoples lives to stimulate positive emotions

A free training course is helping nursing students harness the benefits of music when caring for people living with dementia.

Students understand the impact of music in their own lives, says former mental health nurse Andy Lowndes, co-founder and deputy chair of the charity Playlist for Life .

The universal power of music

Mr Lowndes leads the online training programme for students. Weve all experienced that moment when we hear a piece of music from our childhood and we remember every word, he says.

Andy Lowndes

Following a successful pilot involving more than

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Free training shows nursing students how to use the soundtrack of people’s lives to stimulate positive emotions

Picture: iStock

A free training course is helping nursing students harness the benefits of music when caring for people living with dementia.

‘Students understand the impact of music in their own lives,’ says former mental health nurse Andy Lowndes, co-founder and deputy chair of the charity Playlist for Life.

The universal power of music

Mr Lowndes leads the online training programme for students. ‘We’ve all experienced that moment when we hear a piece of music from our childhood and we remember every word,’ he says.

Andy Lowndes

Following a successful pilot involving more than 600 students at Glasgow Caledonian University, higher education institutions across the UK have been invited to sign up for the training.

The course takes around two hours to complete, and the aim is to help students guide people who are living with dementia to be able to create their own personal playlists.

The programme is based on more than two decades of research that shows music that reflects an individual’s emotions and sparks memories for them can help alleviate the stress associated with dementia, as well as manage symptoms and strengthen family relationships.

‘Some students have told us it’s the best thing they have learned’

Andy Lowndes, Playlist for Life co-founder

Eventually, the charity would like every person with dementia to have a unique playlist of their own lives.

‘The course includes some science about how music influences the brain. It’s not just a fluffy idea,’ says Mr Lowndes. ‘Music can help people even in the later stages of dementia, by developing those neural connections.’

My mother, the inspiration for Playlist for Life

Sally Magnusson

Playlist for Life was founded in 2013 by writer and broadcaster Sally Magnusson after the death of her mother, the journalist and writer Mamie Magnusson, who had dementia in the latter part of her life.

‘When they were looking after her, the family discovered that music improved her mood and she became a lot less distressed,’ says Mr Lowndes. ‘They felt it brought their mum back to them, even just for those moments.’

As a nurse, he witnessed the power of music in his own practice. ‘I’d seen people who weren’t engaged with the world at all, but would become animated when they heard a piece of music, singing, dancing and clapping their hands,’ says Mr Lowndes.

Since 2015, the charity has educated more than 6,000 health and social care professionals.

Music reaches even parts of the brain damaged by dementia

The training package features interviews with specialists in dementia care, including Craig Ritchie, chair of the psychiatry of ageing at the University of Edinburgh and director of Brain Health Scotland.

‘Music stimulates many parts of the brain at once, meaning that even if parts of the brain have been damaged by dementia, music can still reach other parts,’ says Professor Ritchie. ‘Playlist for Life uses music that is meaningful to a person living with dementia to improve their life, and the lives of their loved ones and carers.

‘Everyone training for a career in health and social care should take the opportunity to learn more about the power of personal playlists,’ he adds.

A life’s milestones remembered in music

The training includes information about the charity’s background, facts about dementia, and how music can help. Students are encouraged to become ‘music detectives’, developing their skills in identifying the soundtrack to someone’s life by eliciting the right information.

‘We have some tips to help, with areas to explore with the person or their family if interaction is difficult,’ explains Mr Lowndes. Suggestions include exploring the period when the person was aged between ten and 30, the time some psychologists say people create more memories than at any other time in their lives.

Musical choices could reflect a particular time in a person’s history, such as a favourite holiday or the first dance at their wedding.

Some tracks may be inherited from others, such as those the person’s children liked or what their parents may have sung to them. There are also ‘identity’ songs, which can include local tunes and those related to religion, faith, politics or sport.

Equipping nursing students to connect with patients as individuals

Students are also asked to select their own five tunes and say why they have chosen them. ‘It’s not just about pieces of music but the autobiographical story of someone told through their choices,’ says Mr Lowndes.

‘All those things are revealed, and you can then engage in conversation, reminding someone about why they like that particular song. We’re connecting to the uniqueness of that individual.’

It’s important to remember that music comes in many different forms, says Mr Lowndes, whose own playlist includes birdsong and poetry. ‘The sound of a blackbird singing makes me think of things from my life,’ he says. ‘The training encourages people to think a little bit outside the box.’

He also warns about ‘red flag’ songs that might upset people because of their negative associations. ‘It’s important to do your homework, as we don’t want to expose the person to distressing music,’ says Mr Lowndes.

Potential of music to enhance nursing care

So far, the response from students has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘Some have told us it’s the best thing they have learned,’ he says ‘Others have talked about how emotional it made them feel, witnessing some of the case studies we include.

‘They recognise both the simplicity of the idea and the huge impact it can have on the person, and the care they can offer.’

Some students have had placements where playlists are already being used. ‘They feel it’s good to have the training and awareness of it before they experience it in action,’ says Mr Lowndes.

‘Others have talked to their mentor about it and the response is often that they’ll try it out – so students are also helping to influence practice.’


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